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Why Bike-Share Pricing Gripes Are Overblown

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Paris shared bicycle station

Shared bikes in Paris. Credit: John Matson/Scientific American

This summer, New York City will receive a bike-share system much like those already in place in Paris, London, Washington, D.C., and dozens of other cities. Once the 10,000 blue CitiBikes are installed, a bike-share member will be able to check out a bicycle from one of 600 kiosks around the city (well, around the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens) for free one-way trips of up to 30 or 45 minutes. The duration of the no-fee use depends on the paid membership, which ranges from $9.95 for a day pass to $95 for a yearlong subscription.

For some New Yorkers (disclosure: I’m one of them), the bike-share network can’t come soon enough. But a few Web sites have grown a bit alarmed by the pricing structure. “CitiBike, NYC’s Bike Share, Will Cost $77 For A Four-Hour Ride,” blared a headline on Gothamist. And in a piece rightly pointing out that CitiBike will be pricier than the London or Paris networks, ArsTechnica noted up top that a five-hour rental will run $97.

Those are attention-grabbing numbers, to be sure. But they’re meaningless.

The reason is that a bike share is not simply an automated bike-rental service. It’s a flexible option for short-distance transportation. Need to get across town to make an appointment? Grab a shared bike and go. Want to take a leisurely four-hour ride along the waterfront? You’d be better served renting a bicycle from the numerous businesses that cater to that market. Besides, if CitiBikes are anything like the heavy, utilitarian clunkers I rode in Paris, you won’t want to spend four hours in the saddle.

The overage fees that most users are likely to incur are more reasonable—$2.50 for yearlong members who ride an extra half-hour beyond their allotted 45 minutes, $4.00 for short-term members who exceed their 30 minutes by a half-hour or less—but certainly seem aimed at keeping trips short.

Think of shared bikes as personal, self-piloted taxicabs. They are awfully convenient for getting you quickly from point A to point B, but they’re certainly not the best option for long trips. Imagine a headline griping that a yellow cab from New York to Washington, D.C., costs $467, and you’ll see why I feel that some people are missing the point.

Another helpful comparison is a library—you can check out a book for a reasonable amount of time, and then you have to give it back. If you want to keep the book longer, there are plenty of other options for that.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. r0b3m4n 5:05 pm 05/30/2012

    Back in the day I worked at a large lab facility that had “campus bikes” everywhere. Heavy, clunky and like shopping carts you never know what it’s gonna be like until you start going. But the bikes were super convenient probably saving the lab tons of $ in saved man hours (over walking). Plus it was always fun to walk out of a building to see your bike was gone and having to walk a little further along just to steal someone elses bike, hoping the whole time it was a director or someone who was going to be looking to come back to it. :)

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  2. 2. doctordawg 2:20 am 05/31/2012

    A library is a terrible comparison. No library charges ten bucks to walk in the door for one day, and then automatically jams fees on your credit card when you’re not done reading in 30 minutes.

    If you’re visiting NY, Go to Walmart and buy a brand new $88 18 speed bike, ride it around 24 hours a day for a week (equal to thousands of dollars on a CitiBike) then just leave it unattended to be stolen when you’re ready to leave. You’ll save a boatload of money, and then pass the bike along to a needy homeless guy who can’t run up your credit card like CitiBike after you get home.

    NYC is intentionally killing the bicycle idea before it begins. They will tell the environmentals that they tried, but cabs and limos are what New Yorkers really want. It couldn’t be more obvious.

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  3. 3. LBQns 10:34 am 05/31/2012

    doctordawg: Walmart only wishes they had stores in NYC.

    But interesting idea. Just don’t abandon your bike on the street–plenty of places to donate to, and we don’t need more crap cluttering up our pedestrian paths.

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  4. 4. geojellyroll 12:17 pm 05/31/2012

    doctordawg: “If you’re visiting NY, Go to Walmart and buy a brand new $88 18 speed bike, ride it around 24 hours a day for a week ”

    My wife and i did exactly that the last time we visited Hawaii. We bought inexpensive bikes at Walmart and drove them around for 10 days. Less expensive than renting and less paper work…no deposit if stolen, etc. When we left Hawaii we gave them to two homeless-looking guys along with the cash receipts so they could return them to Walmart if they had the initiative.

    Anyways, i’d prefer a ‘looser’ system. Folks with low end bikes just leave them outside for anyone to take. Garages, sheds and basements are stuffed with tens of millions of them gathering dust. Most bikes have almost zero resale value.

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  5. 5. dwbd 11:36 pm 05/31/2012

    Free bikes are a better idea, pay charities to fix up abandoned bikes (there are loads), paint them a prominent color and just drop them on streets anywhere. Anyone who steals or damages one must buy the city 100 more cheapo bikes. And throw out the stupid helmet laws that impede casual use of bicycles.

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