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Do bike-share programs actually increase bike commuting? Here’s what 10 years of data tells us

Daily commuter routes are difficult to track, and no one knew for what purposes people rented the bikes.

Do bike-share programs actually increase bike commuting? Here’s what 10 years of data tells us
[Photo: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash]

Those bike-share racks dotting the street corners of 50 U.S. cities actually work: They spike bike commutes by 20%, according to a new study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

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This is news: Daily commuter routes are difficult to track, and no one knew for what purposes people rented the bikes. “This study shows that bike-share systems can drive a population to commute by bike,” says the study’s author, Dafeng Xu, an assistant professor of urban policy at the University of Washington. He studied a decade of commuting data from 38 cities with bike-share systems.

Bike-share systems first appeared a decade ago in the U.S. (they are common in some cities in Europe and Asia), and some failed due to too few locations. Xu found that bigger bike-share systems do result in more commuters. “In general, biking is good and healthy, and it means less pollution and traffic, but it can be expensive, and people worry about their bikes being stolen,” Xu said. “Bike share solves some of these problems, because people don’t need to worry about the cost and theft.”

But nationwide, bike commute rates are quite low, just 0.6% according to 2013-2017 figures, with a few standout cities, like Portland, Oregon, which boasts a 5.3% bike commute rate. Bike-share cities had a 1% bike commute rate in 2008, which rose to 1.7% in 2016, while at the same time, car commute levels in those cities dropped from 66% to 59%.

Xu encourages bike-share companies to expand bike racks to outlying communities and increase allowable rental time, which is often capped at 30 minutes per fee. Bike commutes are expected to spike again following the pandemic, as people steer clear of crowded public transit.

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