Bike sharing is a big deal.
According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the total number of bike-share bikes operating in the United States more than doubled in 2017, the most recent year for which reliable figures are available.
Much of that increase came from a proliferation of dockless bike-share systems, which are more flexible than traditional station-based systems. But station-based capacity increased as well, growing by roughly one-third during 2017.
Despite their rapidly growing numbers, dockless bike-share systems still count for a small fraction of total bike-share trips in the U.S. For that reason, the best bike-share programs in North America mainly include station-based systems. However, some systems use both station-based and dockless bikes, and the inventory mix could change in the future.
Best Bike-Share Programs in North America
By global standards, the U.S. and Canada are behind the bike-sharing curve.
Indeed, the world’s largest bike-share programs are in Southeast Asia and Europe. Though it’s hard to come by reliable data about Chinese bike sharing, several Chinese cities appear to have massive bike-share systems with more than 20,000 bikes each. The city of Taiyan in northern China takes the cake with more than 40,000 bikes at last count. Paris’ Vélib’, Europe’s largest bike-share system, has at least 15,000 bikes.
No North American city comes close to these overseas figures, though some of the continent’s bike-share programs are growing rapidly. However, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Factors including dockless bike availability, high-quality bikes, favorable pricing, and dense station coverage (which makes it easier to switch bikes and thus can reduce usage fees) can overcome numerical limitations and make smaller programs attractive.
With that in mind, these programs are among the best options available to North American riders. All offer single rides for occasional users and subscription options for more frequent riders — often an excellent value for regular bike commuters.
1. Capital Bikeshare — Washington, D.C.
- Number of Bikes: Over 4,300
- Number of Stations: Over 500
- Geographical Area Served: All of Washington, D.C.; all of Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia; adjacent suburban areas of Maryland and Virginia
- Pass and Membership Options: 24-hour pass ($8); three-day pass ($17); monthly membership ($28); annual membership ($85 when paid in full, $96 when paid in $8 monthly installments). There’s also a daily key membership option, which provides an electronic key (similar to a hotel key) that always remains in the user’s possession. You can activate and deactivate the key for unlimited 24-hour periods, providing one-touch bike access via stored credit card when active. The daily key membership’s cost is $10 for the key and $7 per day when active.
- Passholder Usage Fees: First 30 minutes free; second 30 minutes $2; third 30 minutes $4; $8 for each subsequent 30 minutes
- Member Usage Fees: First 30 minutes free; second 30 minutes $1.50; third 30 minutes $3; $6 for each subsequent 30 minutes
The successor to North America’s oldest bike-share network, Capital Bikeshare, has operated in the core of the Washington, D.C., region and parts of suburban Montgomery County, Maryland, since 2008. It’s administered by a Brooklyn-based private company called Motivate and receives supplementary funding from both the Federal Highways Administration and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Bikes are available 24 hours per day year-round.
Capital Bikeshare integrates well with the D.C. area’s public transit system. The largest bike-share stations are located near Metro stations and major bus stops, making it easier for commuters to bike from residential neighborhoods to a transit line, where they can drop the bike and continue on their way.
Unsurprisingly, Capital Bikeshare stations are also plentiful around central D.C.’s cultural and federal landmarks, and the organization markets heavily to out-of-town tourists.
2. Divvy — Chicago, Illinois
- Number of Bikes: Over 6,000
- Number of Stations: Over 570
- Geographical Area Served: Virtually all of Chicago’s North and West sides and much of the South and Southwest sides; the network extends west and north into nearby suburbs such as Oak Park and Evanston; densest coverage is in core Chicago neighborhoods such as the Loop and Near North; not available on the far South or Southwest sides as of early 2018
- Pass and Membership Options: 24-hour pass ($15); single-ride pass ($3 for 30 minutes); annual membership ($99 with 15 additional minutes free on each ride)
- Passholder Usage Fees: First 30 minutes free; all subsequent 30-minute periods $3
- Membership Usage Fees: First 45 minutes free; all subsequent 30-minute periods $3
Divvy is administered by a partnership between the Chicago Department of Transportation, the suburb of Evanston, and the ridesharing company Lyft. Divvy is available 24 hours per day year-round, even in the depths of the Chicago winter. (“Available,” however, doesn’t necessarily mean “fun to use.”)
Divvy is well-integrated with Chicago’s transit system. The largest stations are adjacent to L stations, with smaller hubs in neighborhoods. Sightseers are sure to appreciate the numerous stations throughout the Loop and along Chicago’s trail- and park-studded lakefront.
3. Citi Bike — New York City, New York
- Number of Bikes: Over 12,000
- Number of Stations: Over 600
- Geographical Area Served: Most of Manhattan; much of Brooklyn; parts of Queens; core neighborhoods in Jersey City, New Jersey. The system is in the process of a multiyear expansion that will further expand coverage in the outer boroughs.
- Pass and Membership Options: 24-hour pass ($12); three-day pass ($24); single ride ($3); annual membership ($169, with an additional 15 minutes free on each ride). Multiple subsidies are available for low-income riders, residents of New York City public housing, and military veterans.
- Passholder Usage Fees: First 30 minutes free; all subsequent 15-minute periods $4
- Membership Usage Fees: First 45 minutes free; all subsequent 15-minute periods $2.50
New York’s Citi Bike, North America’s largest and busiest bike-share system, is wholly owned and operated by Motivate. As the name suggests, the service’s biggest sponsor is Citibank, the branding of which conspicuously adorns each bike.
Citi Bike is a bit costlier than other bike-share programs, primarily due to the higher costs for alternative forms of transportation in New York City. It’s especially pricey for day-pass users, who pay $4 for each additional 15 minutes past the initial 30 minutes. The program is available 24 hours per day year-round.
While Citi Bike may be more convenient than waiting for the bus or sitting on a crowded train each morning, it’s a bit inconvenient because it’s only available in the city’s busiest neighborhoods. The limited geographical availability is also a problem for tourists who want to explore farther-flung parts of the city.
4. Bixi — Montreal, Quebec (Canada)
- Number of Bikes: About 7,400
- Number of Stations: About 515
- Geographical Area Served: Mostly south of Autoroute 25, east of Autoroute 40, north of Autoroute 20, and west of the St. Lawrence River, with isolated pockets in adjacent neighborhoods and cities
- Pass and Membership Options: One-way trip ($2.99 Canadian, written C$, for 30 minutes or less); one-day pass (C$5.25 for unlimited use); three-day pass (C$15 for 30 minutes or less); annual membership (C$97 with an additional 15 minutes included free with each ride); 90-day membership (C$57 with an additional 15 minutes included free with each ride); 30-day membership (C$36 with an additional 15 minutes included free with each ride)
- Passholder/a la Carte Usage Fees: First 30 minutes free; next 15 minutes C$1.80; all subsequent 15-minute periods C$3
- Membership Usage Fees: First 45 minutes free; second 15 minutes C$1.80; all subsequent 15-minute periods C$3
Bixi is the oldest major bike-share system in North America. Until Citi Bike opened, it was also the largest. Many subsequent U.S. programs owe their existence to the success of Bixi and drew heavily on the Canadian program during planning and deployment. Bixi’s network is particularly dense in the touristy areas of Montreal, including Old Montreal, the McGill University area, and near Parc du Mont-Royal (though not actually in the park).
Bixi is well-integrated with Montreal’s transit system, including the Metro. Sadly, its ridership dropped somewhat after a sharp price increase in 2012, which could serve as a warning to other bike-share systems not to raise prices too high or too quickly. Also, the service is only available roughly seven months out of the year — early April through early November, with exact opening and closing dates dependent on the weather.
5. Nice Ride — Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota
- Number of Bikes: Over 1,800
- Number of Stations: Over 200
- Geographical Area Served: Most of Minneapolis and St. Paul proper, with fewer stations in outlying neighborhoods
- Pass and Membership Options: 30-day pass ($18); 24-hour pass ($6); single-ride pass ($2); annual membership ($75 for adults, $65 for students with an additional 30 minutes free included with each ride)
- Passholder Usage Fees: First 30 minutes free; $2 for each additional 30 minutes
- Membership Usage Fees: First 60 minutes free; $2 for each additional 30 minutes
Launched in 2010, Nice Ride is one of North America’s older bike-share programs. Blue Cross Blue Shield is a major sponsor, and it’s well-integrated with Minneapolis-St. Paul’s park and rapid transit systems. With reasonable usage fees, it’s a bit less expensive to use Nice Ride for leisure riding than some of its pricier counterparts. And the station network is dense enough that finding a dock — and thus switching out for a new bike to avoid usage fees — isn’t usually a problem.
Nice Ride is in the midst of an expansion to multiple vacation towns in the region north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, with the possible goal of creating a statewide membership system for weekend travelers. Like Bixi, Nice Ride shuts down for the winter — roughly from November to early April, depending on conditions.
6. Bluebikes — Boston, Massachusetts
- Number of Bikes: Over 1,800
- Number of Stations: Over 200
- Geographical Area Served: Central Boston, including the Back Bay, Financial District, Beacon Hill, and the North End; also located in Cambridge, Brookline, Everett, and Somerville
- Pass and Membership Options: 24-hour membership ($10); single trip ($2.50); annual membership ($99); monthly membership ($20)
- Membership and Passholder Usage Fees: First 30 minutes free; $2.50 for each additional 30 minutes
Overseen by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the various cities it serves, Bluebikes is operated by Motivate and funded by a variety of private and public sponsors. Bluebikes stations are plentiful near T stations, particularly along the Red and Green lines, near Boston’s water features, and in centrally located tourist districts.
In served areas, the dense station network makes the system ideal for commuters and tourists despite somewhat steep pricing. Though most Bluebikes stations close during the winter (roughly mid-November to early April), the Cambridge stations remain open through the cold season if conditions allow.
These bike-sharing programs are all well-established, well-used, and apparently well-liked by riders in their respective hometowns.
Whether they’ll remain alone is another question. The bike-sharing industry is coming off many consecutive years of impressive growth. It’s no stranger to disruption, as attested by the almost-overnight explosion of dockless bike-share bikes a few years back.
That’s welcome news for riders on the lookout for new mobility options (and too busy or short on cash to contemplate buying a new bike anytime soon). Let’s just hope that those tasked with running these popular bike-share programs won’t tinker too much with what’s made them successful to date.
Is your city’s bike-sharing program on this list? Should it be?