Bike Share Is Billed as a Car Alternative, But Is It Really?

Not for most riders, a study of five cities shows.

Photo via Indego

Photo via Indego

One of the biggest arguments for Philadelphia’s bike sharing program is that it reduces car use, which in turn limits the city’s addiction to fossil fuels and maybe even helps stave off the apocalypse by a couple days.

But is that true?

A recent study shows that, yes, launching a bike sharing program can help a city cut back on its reliance on cars — but not by as much as you might think.

One reason that bike sharing only takes a small bite out of car dependence is because people use it mostly as a substitute to walking or using public transit, rather than driving.

For instance, bike share users in Washington D.C. were asked, “If Capital Bikeshare had not been available, how would you have made your most recent trip?” Only 7 percent said they would have driven a car instead, compared to roughly 45 percent who said they would have taken public transit and more than 30 percent who said they would have walked, according to a 2014 study by Australian researchers Elliot Fishman, Simon Washington and Narelle Haworth.

Graphic by Fishman, Washington and Haworth.

Graphic by Fishman, Washington and Haworth.

The good news is that still adds up to lots of miles (well, kilometers per this study) not traveled in cars. In D.C., an estimated 444,187 kilometers were not added to car odometers in 2012 thanks to Capital Bikeshare.

But what about the vehicle kilometers traveled by the trucks and cars that service and stock the bike sharing stations? Once those kilometers are factored in, the number of kilometers not traveled in cars because of D.C.’s bike sharing program drops to 243,291 in 2012.


Graphic by Fishman, Washington and Haworth.

And as you can see above, the number of kilometers traveled by vans to stock bike sharing stations and do other maintenance work in London is actually greater than the number of kilometers not traveled in cars as a result of the bike sharing program.

That’s presumably because car use is already pretty low in London, which means that, compared to a place such as Washington, D.C., an even larger percentage of bike share users would have taken public transit or walked if bike sharing wasn’t an option.

But rest assured, Philly cyclists. London is an outlier. And as the study’s authors note, there’s still an upside to bike sharing there: “The substantial share of bike share trips substituting for public transit, particularly in London, may be helping to relieve public transit overcrowding.”

Still, it’s clear that the more Philly limits the driving by workers doing bike share maintenance, the greener the system. Here’s an idea: Maybe Indego could offer a discount to customers if they voluntarily pedal bikes to different stations that need them.