Bike Sharing Goes Big, Really Big

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Cannes, France, is best known for its film festival, but the town also hosts The Lions International Festival of Creativity—essentially, the Oscar awards of the advertising world. One of the biggest winners from the most recent round? Buenos Aires’ Never Stop Riding campaign, whose ads are featured here.

The campaign aimed to serve notice that Buenos Aires is ramping up its bike share program. Buenos Aires got rolling modestly back in 2010 with a mere three bicycle stations, averaging 100 trips per day. By the end of 2015, Buenos Aires will host more than 200 bike-share stations. Projected number of bike-share trips for the year? More than 11 million.

That, for the record, is one hell of a growth spurt…and yet, it’s actually on par with what’s happening around the world. Bike sharing has gone over big in the past few years. Really big.

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A GLOBAL BIKE-SHARE BOOM
In 1965, the White Bicycle Plan began in Amsterdam. Fifty white bicycles were placed on city streets for anyone to ride, free of charge. Within the year, most were stolen or dumped in the city’s canals. For the next four decades, bike-share programs were generally considered one of those quirky, European things—the civic equivalent of slathering your French fries with mayonnaise or adding Sprite to your beer. Oh, but the times have changed.

Just how many bike-share programs are there now? It depends on which source you feel like citing, but the numbers are undeniably staggering. Most media types turn to Wikipedia, which notes that, as of August of 2014, some 600 cities around the world had initiated bike-sharing program.

The Bike Sharing Blog (which, admittedly, is written by the program manager of metrobike.net, a bike-sharing consultancy based in Washington, DC), cites a more optimistic figure: 913 cities around the world as of August of 2015, with approximately 1,116,250 bike share bicycles in use. As improbable as that figure may sound, it could well be on target. Cities and universities are adopting programs so quickly that even industry insiders are having a hard time tracking the growth.

“It’s hard to keep up, there are so many new systems being developed,” admitted Tim Blumenthal, president of cycling advocacy group, People for Bikes, in a recent interview with Fortune Magazine.

Most major American cities are either operating bike-share programs or have them in the works. New York City has Citi Bike, D.C. has Capital Bikeshare, Chicago has Divvy, Boston has Hubway, Seattle has Pronto! Cycle Share, the San Francisco are has Bay Area Bike Share…the list goes on and on. Bike share programs are also on the rise in China, Japan, South America, India, and the Middle East.

No matter how you parse the data, bike sharing is booming.

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WHY HERE? WHY NOW?
What’s driving the surge? Cycling advocacy groups have been pushing to make cities more bike-friendly for decades now. They cite the public health and economic benefits, but the message may be hitting home now for one very practical reason: more and more cities have reached a level of congestion that’s made owning a car seem less of a necessity and more of a burden for many residents.

As our population continues to grow, the strain on already-burdened transportation infrastructure will only increase. City managers around the world are starting to see that maybe the Euros with their wacky bike-sharing programs have been onto something all along.

Technology has also been a boon for bike sharing programs. Smartphone apps enable people to locate the closest available bike. GPS receivers inside some bikes prevent them from being misplaced in the bottom of a canal.

And then there’s the most practical aspect: technology is helping keep the bike share programs financially afloat. Most bike share programs in the U.S. require an annual fee. To wit, you go to the bike share station, swipe a card or key and the first 30 to 45 minutes of the ride are often covered by your membership. Longer rides may result in overage charges. Paid bike sharing has less of a warm and fuzzy vibe than its free-for-all variant, but it’s also enabled cash-strapped cities to offer and expand the services.

It’s hard to argue with a good thing.

By Vernon Felton

Originally published in Adventure Journal

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