Man riding bike in city with a lot of other bikers
A bow-tied gentleman making use of Chicago’s Divvy bike-share system. (NACTO)

When I was in grad school at the University of Montana back in the late 1990s, they launched a small bike sharing system as an experiment. I forget if it was Missoula-wide or just the university (Google is no help), but there were these funky green bikes with wire baskets, kept, unlocked, in wooden sheds. Anyone could take one — you were just supposed to put it back in one of the sheds. It all ran on the honor system.

And as I recall, it was a disaster. The bikes were cheap and broke down all over the place. They got abandoned, stolen, beat up. No one ever put them back in the sheds. The experiment was quickly abandoned. (If someone has a better memory and/or documentation of this peculiar historical episode, contact me!)

Ever since then, I’ve wondered when the technology of bike sharing systems would catch up to the good intentions. In theory, bike sharing offers all sorts of benefits. It makes cycling a service, available to casual commuters, people who do not wear spandex or own road bikes. It can work as a complement to a multimodal urban transit system, covering the “last mile” between transit stops and home/work. Bike trips often replace motorized vehicle trips, improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions. Plus, it’s a nice way to encourage exercise.

But it’s got to work; all the pieces have to come together to make it convenient, useful, and pleasant.

 So when will that happen? The answer is: It’s happening now.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has just released the first comprehensive snapshot of bike-share growth in the US. What it shows is that, from 2010 to 2016, bike sharing has gone from virtually nothing to … well, something. It is still a marginal means of transportation in the grand scheme of things, but if current growth rates hold, that won’t be true for long.

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