Smart City Mobility

Smart cities, mobility, and the road in between

Smart City Bike Services: Economic, Environmental and Societal Impacts

The number of bike-sharing programs globally doubled between 2014 and 2018, while the number of bikes increased twenty-fold. Today, there are over 17 million shared bikes in use, about 10 million of them in China. Demand is rising in Europe and the US too. 

While cycling has increased in popularity over the last decade, there has been a recent shift in favor of e-bikes and e-scooters, which are easier to use and don’t require pedaling. Research shows that in cities where both options were available, e-scooters were five times more popular than pedal bikes. 40 million e-bikes are expected to be sold worldwide in 2023. 

Cycling, micro-transport, and bike-sharing trends go hand in hand with the rise of smart city technologies. Cities desperately need an alternative to private car ownership, and bicycles and light electric vehicles are increasingly perceived as a solution. Smart cities are encouraging light modes of transport and building infrastructure and policies to support them, in the hope that they can reduce the burden on road infrastructure, and improve quality of life in city centers. 

In this article you'll learn about:

What is Bike-Sharing?

A bike sharing system is a service that allows members of the public to use bicycles for short periods of time. Some services are free, some are paid, and most provide apps that map out a network of bikes located throughout the city. Some bike sharing companies reimburse the city for the space that their bikes occupy. Bike sharing systems can use docking stations, or they can be dockless. 

Docked bike share services use computerized bike racks that lock the bikes, releasing them only when a user enters payment information. Docked services are well-suited for daily commutes, as the stations are typically located in strategic positions. A potential drawback is that users might find an empty station, or face problems docking the bike at the end of their trip if the station is full.

Dockless bike share services are a newer development and are especially suitable for single, short trips. Riders use a smartphone app to locate bikes, which they can unlock with their phones. Users can then park the bikes anywhere within a designated area, locking them on ordinary bike racks or fences.

Dockless bikes are usually cheaper and more convenient than docked bikes because you can park them right at your destination. However, misplaced bikes can be an issue, as it is harder for authorities to prevent parking on the road. One way to regulate this is to offer incentives like credit points to users who return the bikes to designated areas.

Bike-Sharing Benefits

Bike-sharing services can have a dramatic impact on cities in which they operate, benefiting both the local economy and the environment.

Economic Benefits

Bike-sharing offers economic benefits for individuals and cities alike. For individuals, bike-sharing services offer a cost-effective alternative to private cars and taxis. For cities, the low-cost nature of bike-sharing allows users to spend more money at local businesses. Several studies have confirmed that people who travel by bike tend to spend more than those who drive.

Another economic benefit is the data accumulated by bike-sharing services, which provides information on commuter patterns. This information offers cities and service providers the opportunity to earn revenue via advertising and can help cities plan their services and policies.

Environmental Benefits

Bike-sharing schemes reduce fuel consumption, emissions, and congestion in city centers. Bike-sharing also encourages physical activity and can contribute to the health of city residents. The US government recommends a weekly minimum of 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity, and cycling to work is an easy way to achieve this goal. 

Bike-Sharing Downsides and Best Practices

Bike-sharing can also have a negative impact on cities. Mismanaged bike-sharing systems can cause issues: if there are too many bikes relative to demand, or if bike-sharing companies fail to collect damaged bikes, they can take up public space and inhibit movement. 

If you are implementing or considering a bike sharing program, consider these best practices:

  • Provide a regulatory framework and collaborate with bike-sharing companies to establish successful bike sharing systems. 
  • Build infrastructure that favors cyclists and integrates bike-sharing systems with other modes of transportation, like trains.
  • Initially limit the number of bikes, allowing for growth to match demand. Provide enough bike racks to protect public space. 
  • Shift responsibility to bike-share companies, requiring them to maintain their infrastructure and remove dysfunctional bikes immediately. 

Examples of Leading Bike-Sharing Services

It might be useful to familiarize yourself with leading bike service providers, understand their mode of operation, policies, and pricing, as you consider a bike service program. The following are bike sharing services with a global presence: 

  • Mobike: Operates over five million bikes, with 100 million users taking up to 25 million trips per day. The company encourages riders to park at Mobike Preferred Locations and provides incentives for good parking practices. Users can also receive Mobike Credits for reporting illegally or badly parked bikes. It is based in Beijing and is valued at around $3 billion.
  • Lime Bikes: Offers electric bicycles and scooters as well as traditional bikes. Users locate the GPS-fitted dockless bikes through a mobile app. Lime charges $1 for a 30-minute trip and is especially popular on college campuses. The company is valued at $2 billion and has its headquarters are in San Francisco.

The Broader Impact of Smart City Bicycle Programs

A new study from the University of Kentucky showed that shared bicycle and scooter services may be reducing the usage of buses; every 1,000 bikes on or near a bus route contributed to a decrease of over 1.7% in bus rides. The same study showed bike sharing may be encouraging consumers to take trains. However, other research shows few shared bike users switch over from private cars.

Together with the impact on local economies, pollution, congestion, and personal health, bike-sharing services are much more than a curiosity and are becoming a central part of smart city strategies. Smart city bike programs are inexpensive to manage and can make a major contribution to smart city goals. Even if they do not, as of yet, reduce private car ownership, they contribute to a compelling ecosystem of public transport options that are creating a new mobility economy.