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Sharing Isn't Caring

Late last month, Washington, D.C. launched its Capital Bikeshare ("CaBi" to its groupies) program to much acclaim from the usual suspects -- New Urbanists and bicycle imperialists. For those uninitiated, contemporary bike-sharing programs involve the placement of controlled bicycle racks (usually by government or through large government-financed private operators) around a city so that residents, tourists, and commuters can rent bikes for a fixed period of time and then return them to other racks around the city. All for a nominal, generally subsidized fee.

New Urbanists and Greens love these programs because, for them, any government intervention that puts more people on bikes is a good one. After all, they've already spent a lot of political capital zoning out parking and narrowing car lanes to construct special bicycle lanes. They might as well try to get people to use their "livability" boondoggles -- or at least provide the illusion thereof.

Oh, the hopes were high on September 20. On a blog run by MetroBike, a pro-bikeshare lobbying/consulting outfit, the owner declared the launch of CaBi to be "a dream come true." He goes on to cite other programs in Copenhagen, Paris, and Amsterdam as great models for D.C. to emulate. Of course, these fawning portrayals rarely mention the costs. As someone who doesn't own a car, rarely uses public transit, and who uses a bicycle for the vast majority of excursions in Washington, D.C., let me explain why I'm not thrilled with bike-sharing and why you shouldn't be either.

First, every one of these systems operates at a loss. Just like transit fares, bike-share user fees do not generate enough revenue to maintain existing capital, let alone provide for expansion (or even cover the initial public investment). For example, Paris' oft-lauded Vélib program experienced a stock loss rate of nearly 80 percent after launch. That is to say, of the initial 20,600 Vélib bikes  -- with an average cost of $3,500 per bike when initial investment and maintenance are included -- 16,000 were either stolen or damaged beyond repair. Tourists love 'em, but they're not the ones subsidizing most of the cost to the public. Another example is Montreal's BIXI program, which is currently more than $30 million in debt.

Second, proponents claim externalities from increased bike-share use -- less congestion, less pollution -- provide benefits not shown by simple fiscal accounting. This appears at first glance to be a valid point. However, when looking at experiences with similar programs in other cities, the positive externalities argument falls flat. Law professor and bike-share skeptic Steve Clowney points to this report on BIXI. Researchers at McGill University released a study with the following key findings:

  • Eighty-six percent of BIXI trips replaced rides on personal bikes (25 percent), walking (28 percent), or public transit (33 percent).
  • Eight percent of BIXI trips replaced cab rides.
  • Two percent of BIXI trips replaced private car rides.
  • Four percent of BIXI trips add trips that otherwise would not have been made.

So, assuming for a moment that transit, walking, and cycling (using your own bike) are all desired "green" forms of urban mobility, only 10 percent of BIXI trips replaced car trips. Even under the most alarmist global warming scenarios, the positive public health and environmental externalities cannot justify this fiscal black hole.

Third, bike-share programs are administrative nightmares. As some starry eyed proponents are starting to discover, land-use regulations, politically entrenched NIMBY interests, and odd government management regimes present big hurdles for new transportation models. D.C. transportation junkies are shocked to learn that the National Park Service, which manages a decent chunk of parkland in D.C., is an inept, opaque government bureaucracy. They're also flabbergasted that politically connected resident groups might adamantly oppose this little scheme. Color me unsurprised by any of this. Land-use regulations have been twisted to benefit specific entrenched constituencies and the government is generally incompetent when it comes to any issue related to mobility (or virtually everything, for that matter).

Let me make it clear that I'm hardly anti-bicycle (although, I am strongly opposed to subsidized mass transit and highways). What I'm opposed to is misguided utopianism and spending taxpayer dollars on programs where there is significant risk of failure. We've already had one failed bike-share program in D.C., and it looks like we're going to have two.