Bike-sharing programs have become increasingly popular all over the world. While they offer an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional public transportation or driving, they are also causing problems in many metropolitan areas. The practice has reached epidemic levels in China in recent years with more than two million for-hire bicycles in Beijing alone, causing enormous “bicycle graveyards” to appear throughout the area. Now, LimeBikes are causing similar problems in the San Francisco area.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system is reporting abandoned LimeBikes near their stations, creating a hazard for passing pedestrians and commuters. While LimeBike encourages users to use good judgment and common sense when parking a LimeBike, and BART supports the company’s business model, some users simply are not taking common courtesy into account and blocking pedestrian traffic paths and public transportation entryways.
While companies like LimeBike proclaim that their services help decongest traffic and encourage public transit in lieu of driving, the reality is that many American cities do not have existing infrastructure to safely support bike-share programs. Many East Coast cities like New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston generally have narrower streets than western metropolitan areas like Los Angeles due to their older construction, but some western cities like San Francisco are notoriously congested as well. Narrower streets make it difficult for local governments to establish safe on-street bicycle networks, and this includes places to park bicycles when not in use. Although many cities have recently pledged public funds to support bike-share programs like LimeBike, many others are reporting an end to such funding until they find a better way to work such programs into existing transportation systems.
Another common criticism of bike-share programs like LimeBike is the condition of the bikes. The operations teams for companies like LimeBike respond to user tickets for bike damage and will retrieve bikes left in low-traffic areas, but a survey conducted by the Toole Design Group reported that about 12% of bike-share bikes found in Seattle and Washington, D.C. had major safety issues including broken or damaged brakes, missing reflectors and lights, and damaged tires.
Bike-share companies haven’t been forthcoming with their rider data, either. Some companies report two or more rides per bike per day when the real rate is less than one ride per bike per day. State and local lawmakers need to know how often people are using these bikes to justify the number of them found on city streets. Of course, bike-share companies want many of their bikes visible everywhere for marketing purposes and to attract new riders. Claiming a higher ridership rate helps them justify keeping thousands of bikes in major urban areas.
Many economic analysts and public officials don’t expect the popularity of bike-sharing apps to continue for much longer unless these companies make several major changes. One of the most important should be to ensure the safety and reliability of every bike in their fleet, a difficult undertaking for a company providing thousands of bikes to riders in major metropolitan areas. Bike-share companies need to have sensible fleet sizes as well and do a better job tracking ridership rates. While keeping more bikes on the streets creates a visual presence to potential customers, piles of discarded bikes at city transit stations and unattended bikes left on sidewalks will likely irritate pedestrians more than encouraging them to take advantage of the service.
Lawsuits surrounding bike-share programs may also reshape the industry in coming years. LimeBike and other bike-share companies may need to adopt policies similar to rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft that offer insurance coverage to riders, but tracking bicycles and investigating bicycle accidents is much more nebulous than investigating fault for a car accident. LimeBike users should use good judgment when using and be parking their LimeBikes. It’s also wise to carefully read LimeBike’s terms of service for using the app and their bikes to determine whether any disclaimers or special terms may interfere with your legal options after an accident.