Report from a bike-share conference

In September, 2012, the French-language Montreal newspaper Le Devoir published an article, also distributed as a blog post, reporting on a conference in France about bike share systems, and extensively quoting economist Frédéric Héran.

The headline, translated in to English, is more or less “what is bike share good for?” or “What does bike share accomplish?”

Héran’s conclusions are somewhat out of step with the usual promotional buzz: bike share costs some $4000-$5000 per year per bicycle, and operators keep quiet about this to avoid upsetting taxpayers. Bike share is only practical in dense urban centers; it may follow from increased bicycle use, rather than lead to it. Fewer than 10% of bike-share trips substitute for car trips, according to the few studies available, but bike share does cut into use of public transportation. Widespread traffic calming — avoiding ghettoizing bicyclists — and bicycle parking may be better investments. Héran thinks that bike share may, in the end, have more of an effect as a promotional tool, mainstreaming bicycling, than directly as a means of transportation.

Recent developments — the spread of bike sharing to more cities, notably New York; labor issues; bankruptcy of the Montreal system — lend more interest to Héran’s observations.

The Google translation of the article into English leaves a tolerably accurate overall impression, though there are a number of awkward phrasings, and translations of several sentences are incorrect enough to be misleading.

I’ve prepared my own complete translation. Le Devoir did not respond to my request for permission to post it. If you would like me to send you the translation privately by e-mail, please let me know. Following up on my summary of the article, here are summaries of readers’ comments:


The Montreal program is only replacing bicycle dealers with subsidization by the public, and that problem will rebound at us.

Denis Paquette

The program does not pay for itself in cities which have redesigned themselves to be bicycle and pedestrian friendly. Thanks for a good article. Montreal needs an overall plan worthy of the name.

Laurent Pradiès

I’m an experienced urban cyclist; the Montreal program is a political smokescreen. Montreal is like Los Angeles in having such a poor public transportation system. [Not so bad in my opinion -- John Allen]

Jean Richard

Bixi could be very beneficial if it doesn’t fishtail, and instead leads to Bixi 2.0.

Bixi is suffocating because it has been taken up by commuters and is emptying the subways. At night, all the bicycles are in the residential areas. A lot of effort goes into redistributing the bicycles, in vain. Bicyclists have always asked for secure parking for their own bicycles.

The space occupied by a 23-bicycle Bixi station could park over twice as many conventional bicycles at a lower cost.
A bus transporting 120 passengers uses less fuel and has much less impact on traffic than 3 or 4 trucks redistributing Bixis.

Bixi 2.0 would simply put money into infrastructure and bicycle accommodation.

France Marcotte

(Quotes Héran’s comments about traffic calming). I can already dream of it. I leave my courtyard on my bicycle, and the cars are not menacing mastodons which lay down the law and occupy the territory. We interact in a certain harmony.
If my attitude as a city-dweller only results from propaganda and conditioning, then I’ll choose the propaganda which comes closest to what I sense for myself.

Catherine Caron

My bicycle is my daily transportation but when I drive my little car, there are lots of other people driving way too fast in high-powered cars. It’s take a lot of effort to correct this.

Simon Bouchard

Bike share has to continue, no matter what it costs, for reasons of health, urban education, reduction of pollution, quality of life.

Daniel Beaupré

I have my own bicycle but I subscribed to Bixi. It has its hitches, but I like it. Mostly it has helped when there public transportation didn’t work out. One day when the subway broke down, I got home easily by Bixi. I’m also relieved to the hassle of parking a bicycle and the risk of theft. The lights also are good — too many bicyclists ride without even reflectors.

Richard Larouche

There has been a study of the Barcelona system, published in the British Medical Journal and reporting hat health benefits outweigh risk, and carbon dioxide emissions reduced.

9 Responses to Report from a bike-share conference

  1. Hi, John

    I’d love a copy, and thanks for reviewing this.

    I am sure this post will make the folks at the upcoming Bike Summit in D.C. quite pleased.

  2. BTW, to be fair, one must ask whether cities subsidize private auto travel. While I don’t object to John pointing out the real costs of bikeshare programs, part of the problem is we don’t point out the real costs of private auto travel. It seems only the “socialized” modes get the tar baby treatment. For example.

    http://www.udel.edu/htr/American/Texts/transport.html

    http://www.increase-public-transport.net/fileadmin/user_upload/Procurement/SIPTRAM/Hidden_subsidies_final.pdf

    There are a few hidden subsidies for private auto use. Obvious one is road construction and maintenance. A hidden cost is air pollution costs passed on to society for treating sick people. A couple good papers came out of Toronto on that topic, and when I get the chance, I’ll look for them. A third is zoning minimums for parking, which some have said force cities to use land for other than the best and highest uses.

    Here is a blurb on the Toronto work.
    http://www.toronto.ca/health/hphe/pdf/air_pollution_burden_backgrounder.pdf

    I think that when we look at all of the costs and benefits of various modes, we are in a better position to weed out the waste from the value.

    • Khal, I certainly agree with you that a comparison of the costs and benefits of different transportation options is appropriate. A fair accounting is not a simple matter, as there are costs in time — or benefits in time put to use, say, reading or writing while traveling on a train or bus. Physical fitness benefits, cost of infrastructure, parking, costs borne by the user, by the public…political support for the public expense…externalities of air pollution, occupation of space, effects on property values…etc.

      Also, please note, I’m not who pointed out the costs of bike-share programs. I merely translated and summarized the newspaper article which did. I do think though that it makes some important points, which are often neglected because it’s fashionable to point fingers in other directions.

      Frédéric Héran’s suggestion that bike share programs are most significantly a promotional tool rings loudly for me, as that also the case with bicycling infrastructure projects in general these days.

  3. Khal,
    One of the more interesting exchanges I’ve read on the topic of automobile subsidies was between Peter Samuel and Todd Litman in an old issue of Transportation Quarterly (pdf here: http://www.vtpi.org/OLOD_TQ_2001.pdf ) . They both made great points, but I think the big idea I took away from it was the futility of piling subsidy on top of subsidy in an effort to steer travel behaviour.
    The rise of bike-shares, which weren’t even on the TQ radar back in 2001, looks to be another case where we can’t say for sure how such a system might fare in the absence of, or reduction in subsidies to, its competition (incl. private cars, but also some transit routes). Who knows, maybe in the context of metro road pricing a bike-share would fare quite well indeed. As long at it remains more politically palatable to introduce new subsidies than to reduce or eliminate longstanding ones, we’ll always be guessing as to where the true demand lies.

  4. My favourite passage is this one:
    « Lorsque la vitesse de 80 % des rues est limitée à 30 km/h, il n’est plus nécessaire de construire des pistes cyclables, sauf sur les voies rapides, dit Héran. Il ne faut pas ghettoïser les cyclistes. Il faut au contraire leur permettre de circuler partout dans un environnement apaisé. Comme pour les piétons. »
    “When the speed limit of 80% of streets is reduced to 30 km/h, it is no longer necessary to build cycle paths, except on expressways, says Héran. We need to avoid ghettoizing cyclists. We need to instead permit them to travel everywhere within a calmed environment. Like for pedestrians.”

    The under-the-radar decrease of speed limits on Vancouver cycle-designated streets (e.g. neighborhood streets without bike lanes) to 30 km/hr I think is more important than all the “controversial” bike lane stuff that makes the news. You can really tell the difference when you cross the city boundaries into the suburbs where the speed is still 50 km/hr. Now if only we had a little bit of enforcement of these limits…

  5. Jean-Framçois: is “expressways” the most common translation of “voies rapides”? That is a narrower definition than the one I assumed, “high-speed roads,” which can mean any road with a high speed limit. Also, as you are Canadian and Héran is French, I wonder whether there is a difference in usage.

    I translated the same sentences as: ““When the speed on 80% of the streets is limited to 30 km/h, it is no longer necessary to construct cycle tracks, except on high-speed roads,” Héran says. “It is not necessary to ghettoize cyclists. On the contrary, it is necessary to allow them to travel everywhere in a traffic-calmed environment. Like pedestrians.”

    • “Voies rapides” is literally “fast lanes”, but even “voies” could be interpreted as an actual painted travel lane within a road, or the whole road. I don’t think it’s necessarily a French/Canadian thing, but just the individual translator’s whim.

      My use of “expressways” is probably too specific, since that usually means freeways and other limited-access roads. I’ll agree that “high-speed roads” makes more sense in this case. It’s not clear to me which sense Héran was trying to use.

  6. And “il faut” also could be translated as “we should”…

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