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Why Bikeshare Systems Are The Best Form Of Public Transit

Every personal finance nerd knows that biking is one of the best modes of transportation out there.  In addition to just being fun to do, you also get three things from biking that you really can’t get from any other mode of transportation – speed in getting from place to place, huge cost savings, and, of course, health benefits from actually using your own body power to propel yourself forward.  And I didn’t even mention the awesome feeling you get when you zoom past a bunch of cars that are stuck in traffic!

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These suckers aren’t going anywhere, but plenty of room  in the middle for you to zoom by on your bike.

One of the best pieces of technology in the past few years has been the emergence of the bikeshare system. If you’ve never seen a bikeshare system before, here’s what it is in a nutshell.  Bikes are stored in docking stations, which are placed in strategic, high traffic points around the city.  When you want to use a bike, you insert a keycard, pull the bike out of the docking station, and go on your merry way.  When you’re done with the bike, you simply bring it back to any docking station. Costs for the bikeshare system are kept low because of economies of scale – many people are sharing the same bikes all across the city.

At last count, there were 125 bikeshare systems in the United States of varying sizes and more cities are talking about adding or expanding their bikeshare systems.  It seems like cities are starting to understand the infrastructure and health benefits these bikeshare systems provide.  People can get around town without having to own their own bike.  Or they can use the bike as an additional mode of public transportation.

Despite how awesome bikeshare systems are, when I talk to a lot of people about bikeshare, most remark that they are a cool thing, but that they don’t use them regularly.  I’m always surprised about this.  People will use their cars almost every day or even take a bus every day.  But biking as a mode of public transportation doesn’t seem as obvious.

I’m here to tell you that, if you have a bikeshare system in your city, you should sign up for it and use it every single day.  Even if you have your own bike, I still think that the benefits of using a bikeshare system make it worthwhile. It’s one of the best, easiest, and most affordable ways to get around town.

An example of a bikeshare docking station in New York City
An example of a bikeshare docking station in New York City

Why Isn’t Everyone Signed Up For Bikeshare?

I’ve always maintained that one of the issues with mass transit are the barriers to entry.  There’s a general friction involved when a person unfamiliar with mass transit starts trying to take the bus or train to get around.

Take your typical bus system for example.  Any new bus user knows how intimidating taking a bus for the first time can be.  It’s not always clear where the bus is going.  New people using a bus aren’t sure how much the ride costs or how to pay for the ride.  And sometimes you don’t know where to sit or stand.  These barriers often stop people from taking the bus.  Why deal with the hassle if I can just play it safe and use my car?

I think bikeshare systems suffer from the same friction issues.  Getting started with a bikeshare system is hard because it’s really confusing!

Let’s look at a typical bikeshare pricing guide that I found online:

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What the heck am I looking at?  There are so many numbers and dollar amounts.  And I don’t know about you, but just looking at this page, I have absolutely no idea how much it’ll actually cost me to use the bikeshare system.  In a situation like this, I’d probably opt not to use it at all.  It’s too confusing for me.

Don’t get scared off though because I’m going to tell you exactly how these bikeshare systems work.  They’re really simple once you understand them!

How Do Bikeshare Systems Work?

For the most part, every bikeshare system works exactly the same.  You can pay for varying levels of membership, from a day long pass all the way to an annual membership.  If you live in an area where there’s a docking station near you, I recommend you go for the annual pass.  An annual membership typically costs between $75 and $100 per year, depending on the city you live in.  At a cost of $8 to $12 per month, it’s a great bargain!

Signing up isn’t the issue for most people.  The part that gets confusing are the usage fees.  Let’s take a look at an example.

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So here’s what you’re looking at.  Each time you pull a bike out of a docking station, a “trip” begins.  This means that, using the above example, if you have a bike checked out for longer than 60 minutes, you would be charged $4.

In reality, you’ll never get charged those usage fees.  Each time you return a bike to a docking station, the “trip” ends. When you check a bike out again, a new “trip” begins.  Thus, in order to avoid any usage fees, all you have to do is make sure that you dock your bike in a docking station within the allotted time period.  If you’re using a bikeshare system to commute, you’ll probably never run into this problem.  And even if you’re using the bike to joy ride, just make sure you dock the bike regularly to avoid any usage fees.

Bikeshare Systems Are Super Affordable

The best part about using a bikeshare system – besides getting some exercise – is how cheap it can make your commute. Let’s take my own example here in the Twin Cities.  An annual membership costs me $75 per year.  Because of our harsh winters, our bikeshare system is only active from the beginning of April to the end of October – about 7 months. That’s a monthly cost of $10.71.  Not much more than it costs you to sign up for Netflix.

When I was working in downtown Minneapolis, I biked to work every day.  I live only a block away from a docking station and there was another docking station right outside of my office.  If I’m commuting twice per day, five days per week, that’s about 40 rides per month.  How much does each trip cost me?  26 cents.   No maintenance on my end.  No worries about the bike getting stolen while I’m in the office.  And that doesn’t include every other time I biked in the month!

nice_ride_bike_kiosk
You might think you look goofy riding these bikes, but really, you don’t.

Even in the most expensive cities, commuting using a bikeshare system costs you just a few cents per trip.  In New York, for example, an annual membership costs $155 per year.  Let’s say you aren’t hardy enough to bike from November through February.  That still gives you 8 months per year in which to bike to work using New York’s bikeshare system at a cost of $19.37 per month.  If you’re biking five days per week to and from work, you’re looking at an average cost of 48 cents per ride!  Again, all without having to worry about maintenance, or leaving your bike out in the rain, or some thief cutting your lock and absconding with your precious bike.

Why You Should Use A Bikeshare System To Get Around Town

I could go on forever about why you should sign up for your city’s bikeshare system. Here’s just a few of those reasons:

You get exercise. We all could use more exercise in our lives.  And biking around town is probably one of the easiest ways to get a bit of daily exercise.  Indeed, daily biking is associated with better mental health, reduced cardiovascular risk, and lower obesity. Don’t believe me?  Here’s a million sources for you.

You get huge cost savings.  Using a bikeshare system is, without a doubt, the cheapest form of mass transit out there.  As I pointed out above, my commute to work each day cost me just 26 cents.  Even in a more expensive city like New York, a commuter that bikes to work 8 months of the year spends just 48 cents per ride.  And you never have to worry about your bike being stolen or having to fix a flat tire.  You can’t get a better deal than this!

You avoid having to perform maintenance on your bike.  No matter what, you’ll have some maintenance needs if you’re biking every day.  You’ll get flat tires, wheels might get messed up, your gears get rusty.  With a bikeshare system, the maintenance is someone else’s issue.  Don’t worry about running over glass or leaving your bike out in the rain.

Other Reasons To Use A Bikeshare System

You can wear regular clothes while biking.  I work in a field where I have to wear a suit to work.  While I could just wear biking clothes and change at the office, I’m far too lazy to do that.  Instead, I’ve always just biked to work wearing my suit, or if it’s really hot, just a shirt and tie.  You might think that temperature might be a problem, but since I leave for work in the morning, it’s usually cool enough that I’m not busting out in a sweat on my way into work. And bikeshare bikes are made for commuters wearing regular clothes.  The bikes are pretty big and bulky, but as an advantage, they put you in an upright sitting position.  It’s really quite comfortable to bike on one of these while wearing your work clothes.

You control when you need to leave.  Unlike hopping on a bus or taking the train, using a bikeshare system means you can head out whenever you want.  No waiting around for the bus or train to arrive!

You avoid your bike getting stolen.  Anyone who bikes in a city knows that bike theft is common.  I personally have never been comfortable with the idea of leaving my bike locked outside on a busy downtown street all day.  Even locking up my bike in the parking garage seems risky.  In contrast, with a bikeshare system, once you dock the bike, it’s no longer your problem.  And at the end of the day, you just grab a new bike to go home with.

You Should Sign Up For Bikeshare If You Can

Admittedly, not everyone can use a bikeshare system to commute around town.  You might not have a bikeshare system near you.  If you’re out in the suburbs or in a rural area, you’re probably out of luck.  If you live far away from where you work, you also probably won’t be able to use a bikeshare system to commute to work.  These bikes aren’t made for really long distances.

Any other excuses though, I’d disagree with.  A common complaint is that it’s too hot to bike to work most days.  If that’s really the case, then put on different clothes, take a slow ride into work to avoid sweating, and change at the office.  Or, don’t bike to work, but at least take the time to bike home from work.  The point is, you can incorporate this form of transit into your life.

Even though I also have my own bike, I still often find it faster for me to just bike using a bikeshare system.  I don’t have to fumble around with locks or lug my bike out the door.  Instead, I just walk over to the docking station, which happens to be situated a block from my house, grab a bike, and I’m on my way.

When you’re walking around town, you’ll see many more opportunities to hop on a bike as well.  You won’t always have your own bike with you.  But when you sign up for a bikeshare system, you’ll have hundreds of bikes all around the city at your disposal.

Yeah, I’m a huge bikeshare fanboy.  I think it’s great for cities, great for people, and great for the planet.  If you’ve ever seen these bikes around town, now you know why I think they’re so great.

22 Comments

  1. Great post, Panther.

    My first real encounter with a flourishing bike-share program occurred while spending some time in Copenhagen. Rates were low, a “frictionless” non-member option could be selected at the racks, and the equipment was well-maintained, clean, etc. This was several years ago, but – as you point out – in the meantime, many U.S. cities have caught up.

    The friction problem you point to is a big one. It kills me to look at a price schedule like that – and I’m an economist; I should love confusing numerical tables! Nobody wants to deal with that kind of complexity when all they’re thinking is “Hey! Let’s ride bikes!” Let’s hope that gets sorted out soon – but, meanwhile, your suggestion for the year pass is right on. Such a low entry cost with so many benefits.

    Subsidy or coverage of bike-share costs by employers and/or employer-sponsored health insurers would be a no-brainer. I wonder if any employers have moved forward with something like this…Nike, maybe?

    Anyway, great stuff!

    • It’s totally the friction that keeps people from using them. I’m an early adopter, so I’m always one of the first to try things out. A lot of folks just won’t try it if they can’t figure out what it costs or how to use it.

      Having the cost of a bikeshare subsidized by employers would definitely be a good idea. I know there are colleges that sponsor them. For example, in Madison, Wisconsin, you can grab an annual membership for just $20 a year if you’re a Wisconsin student. At that price, you’re looking at less than $3 per month if you’re only biking from April to October.

      I’m sure there are employers out there that help cover the cost of bikeshare. Really, it makes sense to do so. Get people commuting to work by bike, reduce traffic congestion, and keep people fit.

      • Right on!

        You know, now that I think about it, I know a handful of Badger alumni, and they’re all in great shape…must be all that biking to and from parties and football games. Oh, and probably class on occasion!

  2. I live in a city with a great bikeshare program. I’ve been tempted to switch over my commute (mainly for the forced exercise), but I haven’t pulled the trigger yet. My main hangup has been the sweat issue that you discussed. My office does not have showers and DC can get really muggy in the summer. Toss in that my current commute (subway) is a bit shorter (25-30 minutes depending on timing catching a train vs. 35 minutes on bike) and I have yet to be able to convince myself to switch.

    Maybe I’ll have to try your suggestion of biking home from work as a gateway.

    • You could definitely just try biking home from work to see if its for you. I’ve got a friend who is a teacher out in DC and he bikes all year using the Capital Bikeshare system. Last time I was in DC, Ms. FP and I got a 3 day pass and commuted around the city on bike. Especially with how expensive the metro costs these days, really seems like there could be some cost savings and health benefits with biking home from work!

  3. I would love to bike to work, but I’ll admit to being afraid of doing it in NYC. The bike riders are all so hard core looking. I think they’d be just as likely to run me over as the cars. If I ever leave the city, one of my top priorities when picking out a new place to live will be whether I can bike to work from that location.

    • You should totally give CitiBike a shot, just to see if its for you. I don’t know a ton about biking in NYC, but it seems like it’d be faster than taking the train or driving. Can’t you just zoom through all the traffic? I’m sure there must be some promo codes or something out there so you can at least test it out and see if it’s for you. I know here in Minnesota, Nice Ride (our version of CitiBike) usually has promo codes so that new people can test it out for cheaper or at a reduced rate. Don’t let those mean bikers scare you off from biking!

  4. As usual, great thinking FP. One addition I can add is the lower likelihood of your BIKE BEING STOLEN! As an officer in a beautiful super bike friendly city, bike theft is a amount disease. Bait bike operations have picked up suspect stealing the bike before the undercover officer had even walked around the corner!

    Being part of the bike share, you can rest easy knowing they aren’t stealing “your” bike. Also there’s less incentive for them to take the rental bike in the first place. Cheaper than owning without the trouble of maintenance. It makes sense to me, too bad I live about 20 miles from work and we don’t have such a neat system yet.

    • Exactly right! I actually mention that one advantage of bikesharing is to not have to worry about your bike getting stolen. I know I was never very comfortable using my normal road bike to work. Leaving my bike outside all day downtown just didn’t seem particularly safe. We only live about a mile from Ms. FP’s work, but she still uses a bikeshare system to get to work. Turns her commute into a 7 minute ride and she doesn’t have to worry about someone stealing her bike.

  5. I’ve ridden one of those neon bikes before, on a self-guided tour of NE Minneapolis breweries.

    The usage fee trick is interesting. At first glance, it looks like they would really add up. Docking every 29 minutes avoids them entirely. Pretty slick!

    Best,
    -PoF

    • The usage fees are the thing that trip up a lot of people. They’re kind of confusing. But that’s right, if you dock the bike every half hour (which is easy to do if you’re commuting with the bike and not joy-riding), then you’ll never pay the usage fee. In the three years that I’ve been using Nice Ride, I’ve only had to pay a usage fee twice. Both times were my fault for not paying attention.

  6. I have seen these bike shares on recent trips to NYC, Philly, and Montreal. Very cool concept, it’s nice to have the option to bike so easily available without having to worry about maintaining and securing your own bike. We were in walking distance to most things so I did not get a chance to try any of them.

    Interesting to note they do not charge if you return them in a short period of time, that price schedule would have thrown me for a loop!

    • The confusing pricing is what turns a lot of potential bikeshare users away. I wish there was an easier way to explain it to people.

      If you get a chance, try them out. I really love supporting these systems and it’s just a great infrastructure to add to any city, in my opinion.

  7. Really cool post. There’s a lot of bikeshare stations in the city that I live in but I never thought of giving it a try. The choice is either a 5 minute car ride or a 10-15 minute bike ride that’s cheaper and healthier but costlier in terms of time. Haven’t really even thought of using one until reading this post!

    • A 10-15 minute bike ride is a really short commute! My last job only took me about 15 minutes to bike in and I did it every day. Highly recommend you give it a shot and see if it’s something for you.

  8. I have admittedly neglected bike sharing because of how damn confusing it all is. And the first time I tried Nice Ride, I had no idea that simply docking the bike reset the trip time. I ended up with a shockingly expensive bill.

    Those marketing folks need to get it together; I propose Financial Panther to take the reigns. 🙂

    • That’s exactly the situation that a lot of first time bikeshare riders go through and then they never use it again because of the unexpected bill! If you are willing to give it a shot again, you should try them out again when it comes back to the streets in April (they take them down first week of November). That’d be fun to work for Nice Ride. I did volunteer at the tent once at Open Streets because I wanted a free tshirt.

  9. This is a great breakdown of bikeshare systems! Unfortunately, I don’t live in a big city, but I do have my own bike, which makes getting around pretty easy. I was a fan of walking before, but biking is so much faster! Admittedly, I would probably be a little intimidated of biking in a large city just because I’m still new to biking. All that traffic is a little scary! But it’s a very convenient option to have, especially in places with nice weather year-round.

    • It’s so much faster to bike from place to place – it’s one of the reasons I love bikeshare systems so much. If I’m walking around, I can just grab a bike and get to wherever I need to go without having to worry about what I’m going to do with my bike later.

      The great thing about having these bikeshare systems also is that it adds a lot more novice bikers to the road. That helps to get people used to seeing bikes and reduces a bit of that fear of biking. In the Twin Cities, we’re so used to seeing those neon green bikes around that traffic tends to slow down around them and you see a lot more regular people biking, which makes it much more comfortable for novice bikers to get around as well. It helps that we also have really good bike trails and bike lane systems here.

  10. My friend and I used it in Nashville and we were so impressed in general with the ease of biking around that city and the availability of bikes! Living in LA, however, not so much. The good news is I do have my own bike and live close to work, and in two months will live 1.6 miles to work, so I could even walk. I do admit to falling prey to the ease of a car though. 🙁 I do think guys have it a tiny bit easier in that dept since I do like wearing nice things to work sometimes and it makes the transition just a tiny bit more challenging.

    • I’ve only been to LA a handful of times, and it definitely doesn’t seem like a very bike friendly city. I think I’ve been lucky to live in places where biking is heavily promoted. Not so easy to bike when you have to bike on the street next to cars zooming past you.

      Totally agree that guys probably have it easier in the biking department. I’m lucky enough that I can basically bike in anything. I know Ms. FP can’t always bike depending on what clothes she’s wearing that day.

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