Bike sharing has officially entered the mainstream, with the number of bike share programs worldwide rising from a mere handful at the turn of the century to roughly 1,000 today. The U.S. is no exception to that trend either, with even more programs set to roll out this year in places from Los Angeles to Atlanta.
So what’s driving that exponential growth stateside?
There are a few factors. Car ownership has tapered off — and potentially plateaued — especially among young adults. An influx of infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes, has made it safer and easier than ever for urban commuters and tourists to ride in major cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. And increased educational outreach has helped tamp down fears over the rise of the supposed “all-powerful bike lobby.”
But while a dip in auto usage and a rise in bike infrastructure have certainly boosted bike shares, there’s also a fundamental factor at play — the innovation-driven growth of the sharing economy.
The latter half of the 20th century saw relatively little technological innovation in urban transportation. Yet since then, ever-faster data connections and the proliferation of smartphones have transformed the global economy and given rise to new shared mobility services like car shares, bike shares, and ride shares. Need a car for errands? There’s an app for that. Want a bike for the afternoon? You can be on one in minutes with the push of a button.
The paradigm shift has been most pronounced among tech-savvy teenagers and young adults. Less than 70 percent of 16-to-24 year-old Americans owned a driver’s license in 2013, the lowest figure in 50 years. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 say they would cut back on driving if other transportation options were available. And when given the choice of owning a smartphone or a car, those same millennials are far more likely to say they can’t part with their handheld supercomputers.
Some argue that the sharing economy is a blip born out of the Great Recession of 2008. And while it’s true the economic downturn sharply inhibited spending, there remain underlying reasons why the sharing economy continues to grow and thrive. On a base level, technological innovation is accelerating urbanization and globalization; it is connecting us to each other, and making our world smaller. And as technological innovation pulls us together, the sharing economy’s logistical barriers continue to shrink. In that light, it makes sense why shared mobility is beginning to thrive as a serious transportation alternative.
As for bike sharing in particular, it’s a fun, low-cost tool to get from point A to point B, or to just explore a new area from a unique perspective. Such programs also offer a more convenient alternative to the hassles of owning a car — especially in a city — or relying on finicky mass transit. In many places around the country, riding a bike to work can actually be the quickest way to commute. And with more communities seeking to improve the health and well-being of their members, bike shares are an appealing way to do just that.
Bike shares allow us to harness the technology already at our fingertips to get where we’re going in a quick, easy, and affordable way. As the sharing economy keeps growing thanks to technological innovation, so too will bike sharing.
This post was contributed by Dave Reed