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What Is Bike Sharing? How Bike-Share Programs Work, Pros & Cons

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Not everyone can be a regular bike commuter. Some folks live too far from work, some have erratic schedules, some would have to traverse dangerous roads or brave adverse weather conditions, and others – including yours truly – work out of a home office.

But even if you don’t bike to work, you can still bike regularly. In fact, it can be a singular source of pleasure – few things in life beat whooshing down a hill with the wind in your hair. Biking is also part of a healthy, happy lifestyle. According to the state government of Victoria, Australia, the benefits of regular biking include stronger bones, more flexible joints, lower stress and anxiety levels, lower body fat levels, and better cardiovascular fitness in general.

But what if you enjoy biking but don’t own a bike? Depending on where you live, that might not be a problem. Many sizable cities now have bike-share programs that offer affordable short-term rentals throughout a defined geographical area. These may be run by private companies, educational institutions, municipal agencies, or public-private partnerships.

The specific features and quirks of bike-share programs vary from place to place, but the overarching goal is always the same: providing a fun, healthy, low-cost transportation option for locals and visitors alike.

How Bike-Share Programs Work

The first bike-share programs began in 1960s Europe, but the concept didn’t take off worldwide until the mid-2000s. In North America, they tend to be affiliated with municipal governments, though some programs, particularly in small college towns, center on university campuses.

The typical bike-share has several defining characteristics and features, including station-based bikes and payment systems, membership and pass fees, and per-hour usage fees. Programs are generally intuitive enough for novice users to understand. And, despite some variation, the differences are usually small enough to prevent confusion when a regular user of one city’s bike-share uses another city’s program for the first time.

Bikes & Stations

Bikes and stations are the most important physical elements of any bike-share program. The actual bikes are typically a standard size, color, and configuration. Colors are usually bright. For example, the two-tone color scheme used by Nice Ride Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul’s program, is solid blue and grassy yellow-green. Branding is often prominent as well, with many programs prominently displaying the corporate logos of big sponsors on the frames.

The bikes themselves tend to be bulky (more than 40 pounds in some cases), with robust, high-set frames that look very different from typical road or mountain bike frames. In all, bike-share bikes are usually difficult to mistake for regular bikes.

Meanwhile, stations are essentially high-tech bike racks with an adjacent payment kiosk. Each station has a number of docks (anywhere from 10 to 100 or more, depending on local traffic volumes) used to store and lock bikes. Some cities are moving toward dockless bike-share, which is widely regarded as more user-friendly, but docked stations remain the default in the United States.

Depending on the system and your membership status, you either swipe a credit card or insert an electronic key (containing your credit card information) at the kiosk to unlock and take a bike. Your credit card is also the system’s primary mode of theft deterrence. If you abscond with a bike, you’re likely to be charged for a replacement.

And replacement fees can be hefty. Citi Bike in New York City and Miami charges $1,200 (plus tax) once a bike is determined to be gone forever.

Usually, you don’t have to return a particular bike to a specific station. Regardless of where you got it, you can bring it to any station in the network, as long as there’s an available docking space. To maintain an even distribution of bikes across the system and ensure open docks at as many stations as possible, program employees move bikes between stations by truck or trailer.

Enabling effortless point-to-point riding encourages users to think of bike sharing as a legitimate transportation alternative – an efficient means of commuting, shopping, or visiting friends – rather than a mere recreational tool.

Membership & Usage Fees

Bike-share programs generally have two different types of user fees, and you typically have to pay both.

The first is a flat-fee membership (generally longer-term) or pass (generally shorter-term) that grants access to the program’s bikes for a specific period of time. You must buy either a membership or pass before you can start riding.

The second is a usage fee based on the amount of time you actually spend on a bike. Usage fees are typically calculated in increments of 30 or 60 minutes.

Generally speaking, memberships are a better deal for people who use their local bike-share program regularly, while passes are better for occasional users and out-of-town visitors. In exchange for a higher upfront fee, members enjoy lower usage fees each time they ride. For example, Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., charges $85 for an annual membership.

The difference can be stark on longer rides. Capital Bikeshare charges members nothing for the first 30 minutes, $1.50 for the second 30 minutes, $3 for the third 30 minutes, and $6 for each additional 30 minutes. Nonmembers pay nothing for the first 30 minutes, $2 for the second 30 minutes, $4 for the third 30 minutes, and $8 for the fourth 30 minutes. These higher usage fees are offset by lower upfront costs – a daily Capital Bikeshare pass is $8, while a monthly pass runs $28.

Regardless of whether you’re a member or pass holder, usage fees for many programs can rise rapidly; Capital Bikeshare’s fee structure isn’t unusual. On the other hand, as is the case with Capital Bikeshare, programs often waive usage fees for the first 30 (and, in some cases, 60) minutes of use. The idea is to encourage relatively short point-to-point trips and reduce aimless riding with the same bike.

Returning your bike to a station resets the clock on your ride, even if you immediately check out another bike from the same station. So if you want to bike for longer than the free period and don’t want to pay extra, you just need to keep an eye on the clock, familiarize yourself with nearby station locations, and pick up another bike before your free period ends. Once you return your bike, your credit card is charged for any time in excess of the free period.

Other Funding Sources

Bike-share programs, particularly those run by municipalities or nonprofits, may not be entirely user-funded. Some programs tap private individuals or local companies to become station sponsors responsible for maintenance, upkeep, and repairs at one or more hubs. For instance, Target and the Minneapolis Foundation are major station sponsors for Nice Ride Minnesota.

Programs might also receive grants from local transportation authorities, municipal governments, or private companies. For instance, Blue Cross Blue Shield, a health insurer, is a title sponsor (the largest single private sponsor) for both Nice Ride and Divvy, Chicago’s program.

Bike Sharing Advantages

Advantages of Bike Sharing

1. It’s Cheaper Than Transit or Car Rental

If you’re visiting a city with a bike-share for a few days, the bike system is likely to be cheaper than renting a car or using public transit. For instance, a three-day bike-share pass costs $17 in Washington, D.C., while an unlimited 24-hour pass costs $10 in Boston. A rental car in either city is likely to cost at least $25 per day, while a one-day unlimited Boston transit pass costs $12. If you can avoid incurring excessive usage fees, you come out ahead with a bike-share.

2. It’s a Good Way to Show Visitors Around

If you’re serving as a liaison in your city for out-of-town friends, your local bike-share program could be a convenient, cost-effective way to show them the sights.

Unless you’re hugging the shoulder of a busy road as cars whiz by, biking is less stressful than driving or taking public transit, particularly in congested areas. And if you want to explore a spread-out park or waterfront, a bike is likely to be more efficient, particularly if parking is costly or difficult to find or the distances are too great to walk in a reasonable amount of time.

3. It Eliminates the Need for Personal Bike Ownership

If your city has a year-round bike-share program, or if you’re willing to find other ways to get around during the offseason, bike sharing could be a legitimate replacement for a personal bicycle.

The cost of an annual bike-share membership could be lower than what you’d spend each year on maintenance and repairs for a personal ride, depending on the quality of your bike, how hard you ride it, and how well you take care of it. If you can avoid or minimize usage fees, you could come out ahead without sacrificing the mobility and freedom that comes with having two wheels at your disposal.

4. You Aren’t Attached to Your Bike-Share Bike

I admire intrepid commuters who ride their own bikes to the bus or train, hook it to the front of the transit vehicle, and then cycle from the stop to their destination, no matter the weather. No matter how user-friendly the bus’s bike racks or how spacious the train’s cabins, it’s still an awkward and time-consuming process. And when you get to your workplace, you probably need a lock to make sure your bike is still there at the end of the day.

By contrast, bike-share programs often have hubs near major transit stops, making it easy to bike to your stop, leave the bike behind, and get on the vehicle unimpeded.

5. It’s a Great Option for Occasional Bikers

Bike sharing isn’t the ideal commuting arrangement for everyone, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not useful for occasional riders. It’s an especially powerful proposition for people who don’t own their own bikes but do enjoy pedaling around on nice days.

Bike sharing is also a solid alternative to a car. If you want to visit a park or landmark on a pleasant weekend day, you can hop on a bike and get there in less time than it would take to walk, and with more freedom than you’d get in a car or bus.

And bikes can go farther than gas-powered vehicles into parks and other interesting places, such as cramped historic areas where parking is difficult or impossible. This is a key advantage if you’re a fair-weather biker – someone who hops on two wheels to sightsee on a few really nice weekend days per year.

6. It’s Healthier Than Driving or Riding Transit

Whether it’s your primary mode of transportation or an occasional way to get from place to place, biking is healthier than driving or riding transit. It burns more calories, builds more muscle, and just generally makes you feel better. If you’re committed to using your local bike-share program regularly, you could reduce or completely cut out those inconvenient trips to the gym, painful jogs around the neighborhood, or awkward tussles with home exercise equipment.

Disadvantages of Bike Sharing

1. Some Bike-Share Frames Are Bulky

Though there’s some variation between programs, and dockless bikes tend to be sleeker, bike-share bikes are often heavier (more than 40 pounds, in some cases) and bulkier than typical road bikes. They can be top-heavy as well, which takes some getting used to. As a novice bike-share user, you might face an acclimation period during which you’re less confident than you are on other bikes.

2. It’s Not Necessarily Available Year-Round

Some bike-share programs aren’t open year-round, particularly in cold climates. That can be inconvenient, especially if you’re a traveler who expects to be able to use bike sharing in place of a rental car or a commuter who expects to rely on bike sharing as a primary, year-round mode of transportation.

Part-year bike-shares can throw a wrench into value calculations too. Capital Bikeshare is open year-round and costs $85 for an annual membership, while Nice Ride Minnesota is open for roughly seven months out of the year and costs $75. Which is the better value?

If you’re up for winter biking, you might be disappointed that a part-year service shuts down during the cold season – and you might have to pay more for a winter-ready bike of your own.

3. Geography & Climate Complicate Matters

Depending on local factors such as geography, topography, and climate, some bike-share systems may look better on paper than they perform in practice. This is something to be aware of if you’re planning to hop on a shared bike in an unfamiliar city.

For instance, San Francisco has a comprehensive bike-share network, but it also has a ton of hills that seem a lot less charming when you’re huffing and puffing your way to the top. Chicago’s year-round program sounds convenient until it’s time to suit up and ride against January’s bitter lake wind.

4. Safety Can Be an Issue

Bike safety varies widely from place to place. Some cities are renowned for their protected lanes and bikeways, while others barely seem to acknowledge cyclists’ existence.

You probably have a good sense of where your hometown falls on this spectrum and can make decisions about biking and bike sharing accordingly. But without exhaustive research, it’s harder to get a sense of how bikers fare in less-familiar cities. At a minimum, you should wear a helmet whenever you use a bike-share, regardless of local regulations.

5. Helmets Usually Aren’t Provided

Speaking of helmets, bike-share systems don’t usually provide them at stations. While many states and municipalities don’t require adults to wear helmets on bicycles, it’s a good idea to do so, particularly if you’re sharing the road with cars. Of course, that’s especially inconvenient if you’re traveling, as a helmet takes up valuable space in your luggage and can’t be folded down.

And if you don’t already own a bike helmet, buying one increases the cost of your bike sharing habit. Good helmets start at $20, and excellent ones can cost $100 or more.

6. Dock Shortages Can Be a Problem

Though exact figures are hard to come by, bike-share systems often have many more docks than bikes. For instance, New York’s Citi Bike has two docks for every bike. And bike-share employees frequently remove bikes from full or nearly full stations to keep some docks open. This makes users more likely to be able to dock their bikes, but it’s impossible to guarantee a spot every time.

The likelihood of being shut out of a station rises when you’re traveling to the same destination as everyone else – for instance, a central business district on a weekday morning or a popular park on a beautiful Saturday. If you need to bike around searching for an open dock to return your bike to, you could accrue usage fees through no fault of your own, increasing the cost of your commute.

7. Straying Too Far Is Costly

Unless you don’t mind incurring hefty usage fees, you can’t take your bike-share bikes too far outside the network’s boundaries. Depending on how extensive a program is, this limits its usefulness.

Bike sharing isn’t a great option for a long, leisurely ride along country roads or rural trails. Nor is it viable for a reverse commute (from an urban neighborhood to a suburban workplace), unless the network includes farther-flung communities – and many don’t.

Bike Sharing Disadvantages

Final Word

One of the nicest things about my Minneapolis neighborhood is its proximity to a Nice Ride Minnesota station – one of several, actually. Around here, the reappearance of those distinctive blue-and-green bikes is as sure a sign of spring as the first flower or whiff of fresh-cut grass. And each spring brings more bikes, stations, and users. In some parts of town, it feels like Nice Ride Minnesota users outnumber traditional cyclists, and I’m sure the situation is similar in other cities with popular bike sharing programs.

While bike sharing can be a legitimate transportation alternative for some, it doesn’t always make sense for everyone. Whether it’s cheaper or more convenient than actually owning a bike depends on many factors, including your location relative to bike sharing stations, your local program’s pricing, what type of bike you own, and how religiously you maintain it. It’s up to you to crunch the numbers on your local program and make the right call.

Does your city have a bike sharing program? Do you ever use it?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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