The “Too High” Costs of Personal Bicycling

Background Reading



Bike Racks

Personal bicycling has many of the same faults as personal driving. In a word, redundancy. If you take a look at the places where personal biking is on the rise you will find that in some small measure it detracts from the one real solution for urban transit and that is Mass Transit.

The same thing is true of personal driving. Both of these modes of transportation have the annoying habit of requiring “parking spaces“. Cars and bikes are often given parking spaces closer to businesses for obvious reasons. People who are either in a hurry or unwilling to walk great distances need to have either on-street parking outside a shop or on-sidewalk parking in the case of bicycles.

But in central cities where on-street parking is scarcer and more disruptive we offer “free parking” and parking lots to which people can either driver or bicycle and stow their transportation until needed. Meanwhile we have a Mass Transit system in most cities that goes under-utilized. This does not make sense.

BikeShare Is Now A Mass Transit Option

Citibikes parked in front of The Apple Store in midtown Manhattan. (Natalie Fertig/WNYC)

Citibikes parked in front of The Apple Store in midtown Manhattan. (Natalie Fertig/WNYC)

Let’s focus on bicycles and Mass Transit. When BikeShare is introduced into an urban setting it solves numerous problems. First and foremost it makes the storing of bicycles more efficient because individual persons are not having to find or need on street bike racks. The bicycle should be about moving around the city, and like cars it should not also require a great deal of storage once a destination is reached. It would be better for everyone if another person intending to get somewhere could use the bicycle just “returned” so that we do not end up with unsightly piles of personal bicycles.

BikeShare offers a very clever and refined way of storing bikes until users need them again and it does so in the smallest possible space. It also takes care of additional problems with which cities and municipalities are faced.

Uniformity Increases Safety

BikeShare stations serve to:

  • Provide a means of docking a bike without having to carry around heavy and often outdated locks.
  • BikeShare stations help to prevent bicycle theft.
  • BikeShare bicycles are uniform in their design. This means that each has working brakes, shifters, front and rear lights, carry trays and other advantages that are expensive to buy and service.

As the number of riders increases we will need to find ways to make certain that (as with automobiles) the vehicles themselves meet safety code standards. With BikeShare we get to bikes that meet a uniform code while at the same time allowing for the transit system to keep track of who is where on a bike.

BikeShare bikes can be marked to provide visual identification of the bike and thus the person riding on it. This encourages better behavior of the cyclist since he or she is now “on the grid“.

But most important of all is that when BikeShare is solvent we are contributing to the Mass Transit system itself. By having both buses and trains and now bicycles we can cover the granularity of transport needs in ways that truly amaze. And we do not have to provide any additional bicycle parking or be worried that the bikes on the street are not equipped or designed for safe urban use.

What is more by having docking stations we get to know where our fleet of bicycles are and how they are being used.

Safety Training Is Made More Universal

When people are first learning to commute by bicycle, they are worried not only about traffic but also about how to find help should their bike experience mechanical or tire difficulties. With a vibrant BikeShare system help is a docking station away. Walking a block or two to the next station means that a working bike is available and added tools and pumps are unnecessary. And even if the docking station is empty of fresh bikes a simple phone call can get you service in a manner not unlike IDOT service on the toll roads.

How you use a bike under these conditions is made easier because the video and on-line training for them can be uniform. Because the bikes are a bit heavier and geared lower it discourages the user from trying to subvert traffic laws. This is a good thing.

Bike Shops Still Make Money

Bicycle Mass Transit will require quick and efficient maintenance of the BikeShare fleet. The city can subcontract out much of this service to bicycle shops. Each will have a limited number of parts to keep on hand in the event of catastrophic failure. And bike docking stations can be situated outside of bike shops to encourage BikeShare users who ride their personal bikes on weekends to browse through rows of accessories.

It is possible to have BikeShare station placements serve the same function as lottery ticket outlets. Any bike shop willing to have a BikeShare station will receive a portion of the proceeds from rental. In fact in poorer communities where credit cards are not widely available, bike shops could serve as cash transaction locations to allow both the purchase of daily/weekly passes or yearly passes all without the need of a credit card.

Besides in such communities a bike shop suddenly has a viable reason for being there and can support itself and even hire local youths to work if there is a reasonable revenue stream available. Bike shops in conjunction with fast food franchises could offer a nifty place for BikeShare commuters to grab a cup of coffee and a breakfast muffin and be on their way. The possibilities are endless.

Personal Biking Is Fine But Not Essential

The reason that we have Mass Transit at all is because it provides for the common man to get around without the expense of both purchase and maintenance of his mode of transport. The same is true of BikeShare. Bicycles are cheaper than cars but there are expenses that are “hidden“. To equip a bike to meet municipal and city codes is more expensive. But because personal bikes are unique in their designs it is difficult to get such things as kickstands, fenders, front and rear lights and carrying trays and bins on a bike and meeting the codes of the community.

But more important not everyone bothers to keep their bikes in excellent maintenance. Few people know how to replace inner tubes or do minimal servicing. And ever fewer would want to undertake these simple repairs on their way to work or home when time is tight. Much better to roll up to a BikeShare station and unload your problem bike for one that is working.

Because BikeShare can be part of the reason that a bicycle shop is even in business in certain locations, it is also possible that things like helmets can be the special focus of these shops. They can rent them or sell them as needed. Their personnel can show riders how to wear them. And if a rider who owns a personal bike wants to learn more about repair and maintenance he has the local bike shop where he picks up his BikeShare bike to return to for that training.

Schools that want to teach students how to get to and from their locations can have local bike shops come into their classrooms to train and educate students. And best of all the schools can have BikeShare stations right on their grounds where students can park their bikes and pick them up after school. This eliminates the unsightly tangle of bikes of all sizes and conditions that lie in heaps around too few bike racks and are sometimes never even locked. And on weekends when students might prefer to walk home leaving the bikes at school does not create a problem.

Keeping BikeShare Solvent

Bike parking can be visually unappealing.  Chicago Botanic Garden

Bike parking can be visually unappealing.
Chicago Botanic Garden

If BikeShare is fully integrated into urban life then places like hospitals, churches, business districts can count on having bicycle traffic that everyone is familiar with the value of. And once again the problems associated with how to park these bikes is eliminated. If BikeShare is made an essential ingredient in a community it will remain solvent and everyone will understand the need for safe bike routes and the reasons why speed limits have been reduced to 20 MPH.

People on their way to do shopping at the local hardware stores or grocery shops will now have a ready-made way to bring home their purchases. And if a given community understands the benefits of bicycles it will also appreciate buses and trains all the more when larger and heavier loads need to be transported.

I look forward to the day when a BikeShare station also contains a selection of cargo bikes. Imagine your local hardware store providing a BikeShare station outside its doors to carry home that potted plant. Or imagine a cargo bike serving as a great way to get smaller kids to come along with you on your shopping errands.

The revenue increase for BikeShare would surely go up. Places like ChinaTown or GreekTown where restaurants are plentiful would suddenly have a Mass Transportation alternative that can carry patrons right to the front door of their establishments and all without unsightly heaps of private bikes in a tangle in the parking lot.