A rider in New Orleans takes advantage of the city's Bike Easy program, currently being tested in popular tourist areas like the French Quarter.

Photo courtesy of New Orleans Bike Easy

Bike-Sharing Systems Cost Money, But Make Money Too

Here's how to set them up right.

In the past decade, several midsize cities have launched campaigns to attract young professionals, and as millennials move in, they’re embracing more and varied ways to get around town. Ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft are making having your own wheels less important, even in car-reliant cities like Los Angeles, where more alternatives to public transit have been a focus for legislators and public transit advocates. And the same is true for bike-sharing programs, which have skyrocketed since the first one was introduced in Washington, D.C., nearly a decade ago. Today, there is an estimated 119 systems nationwide.

As Bill Dossett, executive director of the Twin Cities’ bike share program, Nice Ride Minnesota, said last year, “It’s no longer a novelty. To be a world-class city, you need to have a bike-share program.”

For cities still debating their benefits, here’s what to know — both the good and the bad — about building out a bike-share program.

You Have to Spend Money to Make Money

Bikes cost money, but they also bring it in. The University of Iowa found that bike commuters in 37 of the state’s counties contributed $41.5 million to the local economy through jobs and spending. Fort Worth, Texas, spent $598,000 last year on its first bike share program, and immediately made it back and then some when ridership surged 34 percent more than expected.

But reaping those benefits can come with a hefty price tag.

In New York, for example, the city council requested $12 million this year to fund an additional 2,000 more bikes for its Citi Bike program, the nation’s largest. That comes on top of the bike-share’s rocky — and expensive — start, which was delayed after flooding from 2012’s Superstorm Sandy resulted in $10 million in damages to bike equipment.

And with more bikes comes the need for more bike lanes. To fund them, some cities have turned to tax increases, like in Portland, Ore., where voters recently agreed to a temporary 10-cent gas tax that would raise $64 million over four years, 44 percent of which is earmarked for more bike lanes and safety improvements.

Different Cities Require Different Approaches

There’s no debating that bike shares have been a smash, with the number of bike-share rides exploding from 2.3 million in 2011 to 28 million last year, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

But not every system has been successful. Just this year, Pronto in Seattle shut down operations in March after posting poor ridership numbers. The culprits: Hilly terrain, inclement weather, a mandatory helmet law and few bike lanes in the congested downtown area. (The city is giving bike shares another whirl, however, recently announcing it will see two new companies launch operations later this year.)

L.A., too, is similarly struggling with low ridership compared to other cities, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times. In that instance, city officials limited the bike-share system to downtown blocks, making the program out of reach for many who live in L.A.’s sprawling outskirts. Still, officials defend the nascent program. “We’re not New York, we’re not Chicago,” Laura Cornejo, a Metro deputy executive officer told the newspaper. “For every city, you need to look at what the culture is, what the infrastructure is, and what the political and community dynamic is.”

Address Gentrification Controversies Head-On

But not everyone loves the bike-share craze. In some neighborhoods, activists and legislators worry that the bike racks add to congestion and help usher in gentrification.

After New York’s CitiBike program proposed an expansion of bike stations last year in Harlem, a historically black and Latino neighborhood, community leaders called the initiative a “gateway to gentrification” and harmful to local businesses and food trucks.

But research has shown that investing in bike infrastructure and bike shares are actually good for neighborhoods and property value.

In 2013, officials in Indianapolis invested $63 million in grants and private funding to build the Cultural Trail, eight miles of interconnected bike and pedestrian pathways. Two years later, Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute found that properties within 500 feet of the trail increased in value 148 percent, to $1 billion.

“As with anything, some of the pushback is within the community itself, and a lot of it is due to misunderstanding or misinformation,” Jolie Lemoine, president of the board of directors for New Orleans’s Bike Easy program, tells NationSwell. “People think that it will put small businesses out of business, but it’s just not true.”

For Bike Easy, which is currently in the testing phase in parts of New Orleans’s popular tourism areas, such as the French Quarter, the message has been to include the community in deciding where bike docks will go and how they will be used.

“We want people to have the opportunity to get bikes without owning one, so that they can see this is an effective system,” Lemoine says. “It can make areas of town more valuable to residents. I think [the challenge is] changing sentiments, attitudes and desires of what we want our city to offer us.”

Want more? Check out these reads on the challenges and rewards of bike shares:

“Bikes Aren’t Just Good for You, They’re Good for the Economy, Too,” Fast Company

“Have You Heard About That Awesome New Bike-Share Diet?” Next City

“What Keeps Bike Share White,” CityLab

Homepage photo courtesy of Los Angeles Metro Bike Share