Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Why Bike-Share Pricing Gripes Are Overblown


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.

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

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