Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bike-share: Curse of the Wobbly Tourists?

The Washington, DC region is a natural magnet for tourists. During Cherry Blossom season, it usually feels more like a black hole: the tourists get sucked in and never seem to leave. Traffic deteriorates from awful to appalling, as thousands of visitors try to navigate expressways and streets where signage is an afterthought. Metro groans under the burden, as hapless first-time patrons who have never ridden a subway try to figure out how much they need to put on a farecard, and then how to put that card in the gate. Now you can add bicycles to this mix thanks to the relatively new Capital Bikeshare program. Bikesharing programs like this allow users to rent a bike at an automated vending site and return it at another such site. In some communities, including my own, this has led to a fear of an onslaught of wobbly tourists, meandering down the middle of the street as they bike from one attraction to the next.

This leads to an interesting question: does a bike-share result in a net increase in congestion, particularly in tourism centers? One way to look at that is to check whether the accident rate increases once more bikes are out on the road. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments ran an analysis and found only a slight increase in the number of bike-related accidents could be expected. You would expect this if all other factors stay the same (number of cars, number of pedestrians, number of badly-driven taxis, etc.). However, the introduction of bike-share could be reducing the use of some of these other modes.

Consider the Boris Bike. This is the popular term for the Barclays bike-sharing scheme in London. “Boris” refers to Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London under whose watch the system debuted. Mayor Johnson is so enthusiastic for this project that he has publicly stated that he believes the bikes “will transform the look and feel of our streets and become as commonplace on our roads as black cabs and red buses.”

Boris Bikes in London- photo courtesy of Stephen Craven
Who’s using these bikes? Often, it’s commuters who have taken mass transit into London, but still need to travel a small distance to get to their destination. In the words of Boris Bikes’ millionth user, they “are perfect for taking me the last mile to work.” Before the bike-share program began, a user like this would have had to walk or take a cab. Worse still, from a congestion and pollution point of view, he might have skipped transit altogether and taken his car into town. If you lived in London, what would you prefer he did? Now, what would you prefer if you lived in Alexandria, VA?

Granted, that’s a commuter example. A tourist is a different creature. They are persistently lost, indecisive about direction, and prone to come to a standstill while trying to decipher street signs. Without bike-share, they will be prone to pulling their personal cars out of hotel parking garages and exhibiting these behaviors while inside a metal machine weighing nearly a ton.

Why won’t they simply walk? Well, try walking a mile in a hot July on a DC area street. An air-conditioned car will be awfully tempting, even if it takes an absurd amount of time to get to the destination, and then find a place to park that doesn’t require a second mortgage. With a bike, you get where you’re going quicker and generate your own breeze.

Those who oppose bike-share might accept this logic, but they will still point to the finances. According to US News and World Report, bike-sharing schemes typically aren’t profitable. But when was the last time you heard of a transit system or, for that matter, a highway program being profitable? The key question is whether bike-share constitutes an outsized burden on the taxpayer, and the answer is no.

Capital Bikeshare in Washington is very nearly at an operational break-even point, with the federal government chipping in for the initial equipment costs. That’s better than most transit systems. It’s certainly better than the federal highway trust fund, which is supposed to be funded by gas taxes but is now kept going by transfers from the general fund.
So, is bike-share a bogeyman to be feared by unwary residents of historic areas? I would say no, but that depends on how the residents drive. Jabbering on an iPhone while behind the wheel of an enormous SUV is probably not a good idea when passing a tourist on a rental bike. But then again, when is that sort of behavior ever a good idea?

Update: Earlier this week in the Washington Times, columnist Charles Hurt wrote a denunciation of the bike-share program in Washington, DC. Perhaps the most telling remark was when he stated that:
...across the street from my house on Capitol Hill is a loud, clanging “Capital Bikeshare” docking station. It is one of the locking ports for those fat, red communal bicycles you see peddled all over town by commune enthusiasts. (Say that fast, and it sounds like you are saying “communists.”)
This led to a general attack on the cost to the taxpayers of the system. Predictably, he did not compare this cost to the bill taxpayers must foot for the roads he drives around on. There's no such thing as free transportation, any more than there's such a thing as a free lunch.

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