A few hours after registration opened on Monday for Citi Bike, New York City's new bike sharing system, 2,500 people had signed up.
Within a day, 5,000 had paid $103 for annual memberships, according to Transportation Nation, revealing enthusiasm for a program that should open for business next month, more than a year behind schedule.
Over the past decade, bike sharing systems have spread rapidly through cities around the world. There are nearly a dozen in the U.S., in cities from Minneapolis to Miami Beach.
The premise is simple: Bikes are parked at stations around the city, and members (who sign up for anything from a few hours to a year) can use them for a small fee.
A Success Story
Overall, the story of bike shares has been one of success. The upsides are obvious: City residents and visitors always have access to a healthy mode of transport for a small fee, and urban life and the environment benefit from the reduced need for cars.
A peer reviewed study published in the American Journal of Public Health last month found implementing a bike share program can increase cycling, which is, after all, the goal.
Bike share programs tend to be popular among users, who appreciate access to nearly free transportation.
On Yelp, Minneapolis's Nice Ride system averaged a four-star rating, based on 23 reviews. London's Barclays Cycle Hire had four stars, from 18 reviews. Bixi, in Montreal, had four stars, based on 44 reviews.
I spent a year living in France, a lot of it in Paris. I used its bike share, Velib, frequently: It's convenient and close to free. With 20,000 bikes at 1,800 stations (usually spaced about 300 meters apart), it was the best way to get home after a late night, since the Paris Metro closes around 1 a.m. and cabs are expensive.
Damaged Velib bikes in Paris.
There are downsides as well, however. Bike shares are expensive to install and maintain. It's difficult to gauge interest beforehand and make sure the right number of bikes and stations are put into place.
Velib was a pain nearly as often as it was a breeze to use. Late at night, the bikes are mostly used to leave the city center, so finding a bike at 3 a.m. to do just that can be an exercise in frustration. I found plenty of bikes with flat tires, however.
The low point was the night I returned a bike without realizing it had not properly locked into the station. Someone later took it and never returned it, leaving me on the hook for the €150 deposit I had put down.
I lost a lengthy argument with a Velib employee along with my money, but took out a bike soon after. The system's upsides, in my view, outweigh its flaws.
That was not the case for SmartBike, the country's first commercial bike sharing program, which opened in Washington, D.C. in August 2008. It didn't work for a few reasons, Tom Vanderbilt wrote on Slate:
There were too few stations and bikes to form a meaningful and useful network. The system offered only long-term memberships, rather than offering short-term access via credit card. In fact, it didn’t take credit cards at all (so much for capturing the tourist market). Building stations took a lot of time and money.
Other systems have faced similar problems, despite their popularity. Montreal's Bixi program, which operates as a non-profit, needed a $108 million bailout from the city in May 2011.
Paris's Velib has long been plagued by vandalism. JCDecaux, the company that runs the system, repairs 1,500 bikes every day, according to the New York Times. Based on the number of bikes I used — or found and couldn't use — with flat tires or faulty brakes, even that was not enough.
New Yorkers are cycling more than ever before, and the rush of early Citi Bike registrations is proof that there is plenty of demand for a bike sharing system in the city.
The chances of New York's new bike share being a success — success defined here as encouraging cycling at a sustainable price — depend on how Citi Bike is set up and funded.
A 2009 report by the NYC Department of City Planning found that small, underfinanced programs are the ones that fail.
The systems that work, like Velib and Capital Bikeshare, which replaced SmartBike in Washington, D.C. and is now the nation's largest program, are those that make sure the bikes are easy to use, and that the money is there to keep everything running.
Citi Bike will open with 330 stations, located in Manhattan south of 59th St and some Brooklyn neighborhoods. The map of planned stations shows one every few blocks, so users should never have to go far to find or return a bike.
If Citi's sponsorship of the program provides enough funding to keep those stations and bikes in working order, and the promised expansion to the rest of the city comes before long, New York could add a great bike share program to its list of accomplishments.
If not, Citi Bike is likely to go down as a costly failure.
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