The Chicken or The Egg: Public Bike Sharing or Bikeways?

You’re a city public works department committed to integrating bicycling into your transportation system. You know you need a comprehensive bikeway system, and you’ve also heard about bike sharing systems like Vélib in Paris, Bixi in Montréal, Nice Ride in Minneapolis, and Capital BikeShare in Washington DC. You’ve only got so much money, so which to prioritize? 

A comprehensive bikeway system is critical to getting people out cycling in significant numbers.

Bikeways seem like the obvious choice for most of our communities. We’ve got to create conditions where bicycling is comfortable and safe, or few will bike. This we hear over and over, no matter where we are working and via a wide variety of outreach methods. It therefore seems obvious: start with bikeways. 

But wait… successful bike share systems are highly visible and get lots of people out cycling, immediately, as evidenced by Paris, Dublin, Montreal, and Washington DC, and numerous others. And it can be really hard to convince leaders to support bikeways when current demand is low, because, of course, of the lack of good bikeways. So perhaps a public bike share system is a better starting point because a fleet of cool-looking, accessible, easy-to-use bikes is game changing, demand-inducing, sexy, and media-attracting, smacking you in the face with the delight of putting your tush on a bike and pedaling your way to a meeting or store. Suddenly hundreds or thousands of people start cycling for short trips. 

Washington D.C.'s blogs are filled with notes from happy new pedalers who adore Capital BikeShare.

This presence of cyclists demonstrates a long-suppressed demand and creates inducement to put in the needed bikeways, even if they require trade-off with travel lanes or parking. Certainly many of the European cities have taken this approach, and the cities of Boston MA, Chattanooga TN, and San Antonio TX are about to explore this question as they launch bicycle share systems on their largely bikeway-free streets. 

An even more obvious answer: invest in bikeways and bike sharing simultaneously because the provision of bikeways and the stimulation of demand must go hand-in-hand. This is truly a winning strategy, as evidenced by Paris and Washington, D.C. 

Quality bikeways + public bikes = a winning strategy

But let’s face it, neither public bike sharing or bikeways are free (although both are a bargain relative to the cost of auto-oriented infrastructure), and many communities will need to choose a sequence. Most of the North American bike share systems in place today have some level of government investment, although this is not necessarily a foregone conclusion given its ability to attract private sponsors. 

6,000 bikes in London advertise Barclays, as do the docking stations.

And thus, the sequence depends entirely on your community. No one right way to get there, as long as you’re rolling in the right direction.

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