Beware the hidden costs of bike sharing programs

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun

The High Priests of the Green Religion in Vancouver City Hall are about to please their supporters with another innovation that will save Mother Earth from the users of automobiles who poison the atmosphere with carbon emissions and cause traffic congestion and deaths.

Believers are rejoicing at the city’s plans to install a bike-share program, which allows anyone to pick up a bicycle at one of many planned docking stations around the city and return it to one of them. Users will pay through either a monthly subscription or via credit card, depending on time of use. Like so many other programs created in the name of Green Religion, supporters claim this one will pay for itself.

To minimize opposition, the High Priests will launch a carefully designed propaganda campaign pointing to the success of such bike-share programs in the most sophisticated cities of the world, Paris, London, San Francisco, Montreal and Toronto. Success indicators will be the number of daily users and glowing testimonials from co-Religionists.

The supporters of the Green Religion among lawyers will push for a way out of the conflict between the existing law requiring BC’s cyclists to wear helmets and the absence of a technically feasible and affordable solution to the provision of helmets of the right size and guaranteed free from head-lice. The solution already floated publicly is to allow cyclists on short trips to go without helmets.

But the claims of the High Priests need to be treated with skepticism and considered in the light of much inconvenient evidence on the true benefits and costs of creating and operating a bicycle sharing program.

Benefits in terms of reduced pollution and congestion cannot be measured by the number of shared bike rides but must instead be considered based on the other means of transport that are replaced. A study by McGill University researchers shows that in Montreal, of 100 shared bike users, only 10 would otherwise have used their own cars or taxis. The other 90 would have used public transit, walked or used their own bikes. Not much greenhouse gas reduction here.

Unfortunately, this small gain comes at a high cost to taxpayers, much of it due to the theft of bikes and damages needing repair, in spite of efforts to make them as sturdy as possible. Such bikes cost Paris $1,050 each.

In fact, the numbers of lost and damaged bikes are staggering. In Paris, 80 per cent of the bikes have either been stolen or had to be replaced for other reasons. Every day, 1,500 bicycles out of 20,600 have to be repaired. A regular user of the Paris system states: Finding a decent one is now something of an urban treasure hunt. In London, 30 bikes out of 5,400 have to be repaired every day.

There are additional costs associated with the expensive docking stations. In London during the first six months of operation, three of the docking stations were damaged beyond repair and 10 were stolen. Twelve needed repairs after damage by motor vehicles or vandals.

Finally, there are the high capital costs associated with the system. The interest payments plus the normal amortization of the assets should be covered by operating profits and in this regard, the experience of Montreal is not encouraging.

Montreal’s bike-share program in its second year of existence had a total loss of $6.7 million after an operating profit of only $1.5 million. As a result of these financial problems, the City of Montreal had to save the company from bankruptcy with a loan of $37 million and a $71-million credit guarantee in the Spring of 2011 so the company could pay its suppliers.

It is almost certain that the proposed bike share system in Vancouver will also provide few benefits to the environment but will saddle the silent majority of Vancouver taxpayers who never use the program with a huge bill. The High Priests of the Green Religion are very skillful in getting their way, if their success with dedicated bike lanes is any indication. They can count on the silent majority remaining at home during the next election while the flock of believers will outvote them en masse.

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