The Bike-Share Studio in the UW College of the Built Environment released a feasibility report commissioned by SDOT. It’s a very good starting point for any future bike-share proposal and does a excellent job of outlining the possibilities but also limitations and obstacles that a bike-share system will have to overcome, especially with relation to policy. Publicola’s Josh Cohen has a good post on it so won’t spend time rewriting what he already wrote. I have included a few comments and thoughts that came to mind after reading the report.
More after the jump
First, no funding sources have been identified, which is beyond the scope of the report but I think is important to keep in mind. At this point discussion about a bike-share system is more about whether and how it could work. Nevertheless, systems in Europe are funded by allowing new advertising throughout the city. This is a pretty mature funding mechanism in Europe but it probably won’t work here. Daniel Rowe, who spoke to me on behalf of the project team, said,
“In North America, it appears there are few cities that have the foot traffic to generate a large amount of on-street advertising revenue, which means you will probably not see fully funded bike-share system from advertising companies. Some bike-share systems will utilize advertising to contribute a small amount of revenue, but the Seattle Sign Code currently restricts large panel ads at bike-station kiosks. That’s why you see ads on buses (b/c they’re moving) and not at bus stops. It appears that bike-sharing in Seattle could utilize advertising on the bike, but it would not contribute large amounts of money. Other sources of funding that are being explored are federal and state grants, private sponsorships, and user fees. It seems like a large grant and/or private sponsor(s) is necessary to fund a large-scale bike-share program in North America.”
Back to the report. One part of the report that I found especially interesting was the discussion about King County’s bicycle helmet law, which requires all bicyclist to wear a helmet. Helmet laws are very troublesome for bike-share systems because the whole structure of bike-share systems goes against the idea of needing anything, i.e. a helmet, to use it. Bike-share systems capitalize on the fact that anyone walking down the street can easily use the system without planning ahead of time. The report acknowledges that this is a significant, but not insurmountable problem. Liability waivers, discounted or free helmets for yearly subscribers, low cost helmets for daily users, and partnering with business to store helmets are all proposed as workarounds.
While I think it goes without saying that the system should encourage helmet used and place liability on users, I think the other solutions aren’t very practical. From my limited knowledge no bike-share system provides helmets in an on-demand manner. This puts advocates in an interesting position, forcing them to either advocate against mandatory helmet use laws or settle for the status quo, knowing fully well that this forces some users to choose between using the system illegally or not using the system, at least for a portion of trips.
Another question I have which is beyond the scope of the project relates to system operations. Specifically, I’m interested what kind of operations would be needed to ensure good distribution of bikes among the docking stations. I have used the system in Barcelona and while I was generally happy with it there is a chronic problem of completely full docking stations by the beach, while docking station in the foothills are often completely empty. Seattle will certainly have an unbalanced demand like this because of its hills and I think it is important to understand how this will play out. Is it a significant or minor obstacle? Will it require a system that maybe limits bikes from Capitol Hill to just Capitol Hill? I don’t know but it certainly would be an interesting discussion.
My last comment is that I don’t believe that Seattle’s current bicycle infrastructure is to the point where it can support a bike-share system like this, especially downtown where the most potential ridership is. Downtown only has a bike lane southbound on 2nd, a climb lane/sharrow combination on Western, multi-use path along the waterfront and a smattering of sharrows and short bike lane segments elsewhere. Many bike-share systems in European cities that haven’t typically be known for bicycling (Barcelona, Paris and London as opposed to Copenhagen and Amsterdam) are often preceded or accompanied by a significant increases in funding for bicycle infrastructure.
London, which is introducing a bike-share system this summer, has increased funding of bicycle facilities from £5.5 million pounds ($8.5 million dollars) in 2000 to £24 m ($37 m) in 2006-2007 and close to £30 m ($46 m) by this year. The Bicycle Master Plan envisions spending $24 million a year but the city has only funded it to the tune of $7 million a year, underfunding it by 70%. On the flip side Daniel points out that bike-share systems, such as Lyon’s, can be an important catalyst for increased investment in bicycle facilities. Daniel goes on to say that “we recommend that if the city continues to plan for a bike-share program, they will need to aggressively implement the projects identified in the BMP and potentially more.” I couldn’t agree more.