Bike-Share Boom: Where Did They All Come From?

In major urban centers around the world, bicycles seem to be taking over the roads. Eager citizens unlock bikes from docking stations in city-sponsored schemes in Paris, London, and New York. In China and Singapore, the fashion is to go “dockless” – simply unlock a bike with a code on a mobile app. Not to be outdone, California is leading the charge with electrically-powered bikes (e-bikes) and e-scooters. What’s driving this latest incarnation of the digitally-connected sharing economy?

The rapid pace of urbanization is a phenomenon that will continue for the coming decades. In order to become competitive socioeconomic hubs, cities must attract the best creative and technology-savvy workers by offering liveable spaces and a high quality of life. Few things frustrate this cause more than congestion in city centers. Travel by road and rail increased by 40% globally between 2000 and 2010. By 2050, it is expected to be twice as high as in 2010.

In extremely congested cities, such as Istanbul, Bangkok, Moscow, Rome, and London, commuting times can more than double during peak hours, which translates to more than 100 extra hours stuck in traffic every year. 1 This represents a significant economic burden. A recent study estimates the cumulative cost of congestion between 2013 and 2030 to be a staggering £2.3 trillion ($2.8 trillion) in the U.S. and £386 billion in the U.K. 2

Congestion is also a major contributor to pollution. Transport accounts for 23% of global CO2 emissions, more than one-half of the world’s oil consumption, and one-quarter of all energy use.3

At a time of shrinking government budgets and large gaps in infrastructure spending, transport departments at both the city and the national level are looking at alternatives to big transportation projects. Not only do mass transport schemes weigh heavily on public finances, but they are very difficult to implement. They frequently conflict with other possible uses of land and run into vocal objections from local residents whose neighborhoods may be disrupted by new roads, rail tracks, or stations.

Even when new public transport systems are built, they typically charge low fares to make it affordable for lower income segments of the population. However, this usually induces high demand leading to overcrowding.

To date, the most effective solutions for reducing congestion have been to levy congestion charges on car traffic in urban centers. Pioneered in Singapore in the 1970s and deployed in many other cities such as London, congestion charging schemes bring about 40%+ reductions in car traffic almost immediately. Some cities, such as Paris, are now going further with plans to phase out polluting vehicles entirely.

But if private vehicles are pushed out of city centers, alternatives will be needed to pick up the slack. Shared, self-driving electric cars may be part of the solution. The City of Pittsburgh believes so and is already running pilots with Uber and Lyft. But, only a limited number of autonomous cars can be deployed before congestion issues resurface.

As a result, many urban planners are turning to bike-sharing as an important piece in the urban transport puzzle of the future. Not only do bikes provide a nimble means of transport over short-to-medium distances, but they also help to address the “first mile-last mile” problem associated with public transportation systems.

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