The Evolution of Bikesharing

September 14, 2017

If you haven’t been paying attention, you might think New York City invented the concept of bikesharing just last May. With the launch of 6,000 bikes and 300 docking stations in the most media-concentrated city in the world, bikesharing suddenly was news.

But TSRC’s Susan Shaheen, an expert in shared-use vehicle mobility, has had her eye on bikesharing for much longer. In 2006, she was instrumental in establishing a program called “EasyConnect” at the Pleasant Hill BART station that helped commuters get to local businesses on shared bikes and Segway HTs.
In a recent paper, "Understanding the diffusion of public bikesharing systems: evidence from Europe and North America," published in the Journal of Transport Geography, she and her co-authors examined 19 bikesharing systems and interviewed more than two dozen decision-makers on both continents to determine how bikesharing has evolved and spread, from its beginning in the mid-1960s in Amsterdam.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the first generation of bikesharing began in a country where pedal power was well established. But it didn’t work very well. Bikes were painted white and placed around the city where they could be used for free by anyone. (Remember, it was the Sixties.) There was little or no security built into the program and many bikes were stolen.
The concept endured however, and with the innovation of coin-operated docking stations, a second generation of bikesharing evolved in the early 1990s in Denmark. But the cost of renting a bike was so low that many met the same fate as their predecessors in Amsterdam.
Bikesharing’s third incarnation was charmed. The first of these third-generation programs opened in Rennes, France in 1998 and included a number of new technological characteristics, including more sophisticated docking stations and the use of smartcards, electronic locking and payment systems, websites and apps. In 2005 a system with 1,500 bikes opened in Lyon, and it is that system that seemed to open the floodgates to more and better systems throughout Europe.
The U.S. lagged five to seven years behind the Europeans; the first third-generation North American system to launch was not in Washington, D.C., but in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2007. The Tulsa Townies program has endured although not grown much since its free, bubble-gum pink bicycles were introduced in 2007 in an effort to encourage residents to cycle for health reasons.
Since Tulsa, the Capital Bikeshare program in Washington, D.C. with more than 1,800 bikes and some 200 docking stations has become popular, and New York City’s Citi Bike program has sent some 600,000 residents and tourists out onto public streets on two wheels since the program began.
Next month San Francisco will debut a new system with 700 bikes and about 70 docking systems, and in 2014, San Diego will provide 1,800 bikes citywide along with some 200 stations.
“Bikesharing programs have been expanding rapidly throughout North America since 2010, which has likely been accelerated by a high degree of sharing about public bikesharing understanding and data,” says Shaheen.

Ecology and transportation

While the history of bikesharing is interesting, how these systems evolve and spread, or diffuse, and affect behavior is what most captures Shaheen’s interest.
“My doctoral degree is in ecology, so I often look at transportation systems as ecosytems with an eye to how they adapt to the unique and changing environments in which they are situated,” she explained. “What particularly interests me is how an innovation adapts and impacts each location in which it is deployed.”
While technological innovations are significant in the evolution of bikesharing programs, the different operating models each program uses is also important to its survival and growth. In France, for example, private companies like JCDecaux and Clear Channel provide bikesharing services in exchange for the right to advertise on city street furniture and billboards. JCDecaux operates 11 systems in four countries. Clear Channel has 13 systems in six countries.
In North America, different operating and financial models have emerged, including non-profit organizations as business models and sponsorships to support program costs rather than advertising agencies.
“Improvements and refinements in the business model are happening too,” Shaheen added. She and her co-authors believe a fourth generation is likely to integrate even more improvements including solar-powered docking stations, power-assisted bikes, transit smartcard integration, and the use of smartphone applications for real-time updates.
In coming months she expects to continue examining bikesharing programs beginning with an evaluation of the coming San Francisco program. She will also return to China to continue her study of bikesharing programs. A visiting scholar from China has recently joined her at TSRC.
“Advances in information technology and wireless communications have aided the diffusion of public bikesharing and enabled it to emerge as a new form of mobility that is altering the shape of public transportation systems in many cities throughout the world.”
Bikesharing will be one of the topics discussed at a two-day Shared-Use Mobility Summit in San Francisco, October 10-11, organized by TSRC.