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.