One of the most significant outcomes of a bikeshare system is getting more people excited
about and comfortable with biking as a mode of transportation. Both prior to and following the
launch of a bikeshare system, the city should consider potential barriers to entry that may arise
from how the system is designed and operated. Efforts should be made to reduce these
barriers in order to expand the overall ridership base. Below is a list of common barriers
to entry and suggested approaches to limit their impacts.
Feeling uncomfortable riding in traffic is a commonly cited barrier to entry for many interested bike riders. This extends to bikeshare riders, as well, especially visitors to the city who may not be as familiar with the road network or where existing bike lanes are located. As discussed in section 4.3, cities should explore the potential to integrate bikeshare into existing cycling infrastructure—like siting stations adjacent to protected lanes—or to use trip data collected from GPS-enabled bikes to prioritize building new bike lanes along popular routes. Priority should also be placed on creating a connected network of bike lanes that connect traditionally under-served communities to job centers,
transit stations, and other major destinations.
Cities with mandatory helmet laws have faced challenges managing how bikeshare users can comply without deterring ridership. In accordance with a countywide mandatory helmet law, Seattle’s Pronto system, which closed in early 2017, experimented with offering free helmets at each bikeshare station. Helmets were later made available for a small fee which, many argued, hindered the convenience of bikeshare. Making helmets available to every bikeshare user for every trip is challenging from maintenance and hygiene standpoints, requiring additional equipment and infrastructure to store clean and used helmets separately at each station. Private bikeshare operators that contribute to Seattle’s dockless fleet, including Limebike, have given away free helmets as promotional items and to encourage bikeshare riders to comply with the county regulation. In Australia, low ridership numbers for Melbourne and Brisbane’s bikeshare programs have been partially attributed to those cities’ helmet laws, which, like in Seattle, were kept in place despite the launch of bikeshare.
There is little evidence that mandatory helmet laws actually reduce injury rates for cyclists, and prominent cycling advocacy groups in the United States,, such as the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) and People for Bikes oppose these types of laws because the negative consequences—reducing ridership—outweigh the benefits. Therefore, we recommend eliminating helmet laws, but encouraging helmet use through education and giveaways. Mexico City and Tel Aviv both eliminated helmet laws before launching their respective bikeshare systems.
New bikeshare models—especially dockless systems—pose a usability challenge for people who do not have access to a smartphone. Unlocking a dockless bike requires a smartphone to scan the QR code, and finding a bike when there is not one in a user’s line of sight all but
requires consulting a map through the company’s or an aggregate mobile app. Further, user-generated access to system information is removed, in dockless systems, from physical stations (most of which include directions for system use, price options, maps, etc.) and placed
in a company’s smartphone app. This makes it much more difficult for interested users without smartphone access to even understand the basics of how the system works. Station-based systems can be used more easily without smartphones because users can familiarize themselves with where stations are located and have a good chance of finding a bike—as well as detailed system information—there. Station-based systems also do not require a smartphone to unlock a bike; users have the option to swipe their member access card or receive a printed code generated at the station kiosk.
Some dockless operators offer alternatives to using a smartphone to find and unlock their bikes. In addition to an RFID card reader, JUMP pedal assist bikes include a small keypad onto which a code can be entered to unlock and use the bike. This technology is more expensive to install and maintain than the typical QR code unlocking mechanism, and is not offered across all dockless systems. US-based dockless operators, Spin and Limebike, have launched alternative payment programs that enable users to top up their accounts with cash or a prepaid card, and to receive an unlock code, which is then texted to a dedicated number.
Still, locating a dockless bike without a smartphone poses a challenge since bikes can be locked up virtually anywhere within the city boundaries. Some dockless operators make use of geofencing to encourage users to lock their bikes inside “hubs” where finding a bike is much more likely. Printed maps showing these hubs can then be distributed.
The city may want to consider providing incentives (i.e., reduced permit fees, increased fleet size
allocation, etc.) to dockless bikeshare companies that offer alternatives to finding and unlocking
bikes using a smartphone.
High annual membership fees
Annual bikeshare memberships can carry a significant upfront cost—typically between US$70-$120. This poses a significant barrier preventing many low-income residents from trying the system, especially if they are unsure how often they will use it. Some publicly-funded systems in Latin America and China approach this barrier to entry by offering bikeshare for free.
Other cities have developed reduced-fare memberships for those who qualify as a mechanism for expanding access to more users. Common elements of these programs include heavily reduced memberships (typically under US$10 for one year), a cash payment option, qualification tied to receiving other government benefits, and/or extended ride times. Efforts should be made to publicize reduced-fare memberships, especially in neighborhoods with high populations of low-income residents.
In addition to establishing reduced annual membership programs, cities should also consider
more flexible payment options for full-priced memberships. A monthly payment option can help
make the cost of a membership more palatable, and lessens the commitment to use the system
year-round. Offering a per-trip fare may also address these barriers.
Examples of equitable pricing programs and the benefits they offer are included in the following table:
Liability Deposits and Holds
To guarantee the return of bikeshare bikes at the end of a non-member’s trip, many systems
place a hold on the user’s credit card that is released after the bike is checked back in. If the
bike is not returned, the system is authorized to charge the user the full cost of the bike, which
is often cited as a means to deter vandalism and theft. Montreal’s BIXI system immediately
places a US$100 hold on the user’s credit card, which can remain for up to 10 days after
returning a bike. This can be problematic for debit card users, too, who may be charged
overdraft fees if the full amount of the hold is not available in the account. In a survey
conducted by Portland State University about equity in cycling and bikeshare, 69% of low income
respondents identified the potential for being charged for damages to a bikeshare bike
as a significant barrier to trying the system.
Cities should weigh the benefits of deposits—namely, fostering a sense of ownership over
shared bikes—against the barriers they pose to low-income riders. Not requiring a deposit
could result in greater instances of theft or vandalism of bikes, thereby reducing the number of
bikes available and challenging an operator’s profit margin and long-term financial viability.
Still, several systems have begun to shy away from charging users an upfront deposit. Many
dockless operators, in particular, are eliminating user deposit requirements in certain markets
to stay competitive with each other. Although it charges users a deposit in other European
cities, dockless operator oBike chose not to require a deposit when it launched in Oxford, UK,
since ofo and Mobike were already operating there without charging deposits. Additionally,
concerns have arisen in China and elsewhere about the lack of transparency around how
dockless bikeshare companies are using user deposits, and the unwillingness or inability of
several companies to refund to users after ceasing operations.
While many cities’ insurance policies for bikeshare restrict use to anyone under a certain age
(usually 16), bikeshare could be an attractive option for high school-aged children traveling to
and from school. Reduced or free memberships for high school students—much like passes
offered by many transit agencies—may help expand mobility options, and could serve to
alleviate some of the burden that falls on the city to transport students over long distances to
school. Introducing high school students to bikeshare could encourage continued use, and
adoption of cycling more broadly, after graduation.
Limitations for the Disabled
Most bikeshare bikes are not designed to be ridden by people with mobility challenges or
sensory impairments. Unlike other public transit modes, which must meet government standards
for use by people with disabilities, bikeshare remains largely inaccessible to this group.
A few cities, however, have begun to explore alternative options, such as Portland’s Adaptive
BIKETOWN pilot program. While the program does not offer the point-to-point pickup and
dropoff option that is integral to bikeshare (instead requiring users to start and end their trip
at the partner bike shop providing the adapted bikes), it represents a step toward greater
inclusivity. After conducting focus groups on how best to implement an adaptive bike
program, Detroit’s MoGo system plans to offer handcycles, tricycles and tandems as part of a
pilot program in 2018. In Argentina, Rosario’s Mi Bici Tu Bici program offers a tandem bike,
intended for visually impaired riders but can be ridden by any user, at each of its 22 stations.
Even with these options, the ability to use bikeshare for spontaneous trips, or for commuting, is
reduced for the mobility-impaired since wheelchairs or other mobility aids will likely not be
available at the end of a point-to-point trip. Engagement to better understand demand for
adaptive bikes will be critical, and may help identify alternative options for meeting needs
outside of point-to-point bikeshare.