Raleigh should try a bike share program

Bicycles that are part of the NYC Bike Share program are lined up at a dock and lock station at the Brooklyn Navy Yards in New York.
Bicycles that are part of the NYC Bike Share program are lined up at a dock and lock station at the Brooklyn Navy Yards in New York. AP

The Raleigh City Council on Tuesday will weigh whether it should add another draw to its wooing of millennials – a bike share program.

There’s a lot to recommend adding an alternative transportation system that has been adopted in Washington, Minneapolis, New York and Seattle and 850 cities worldwide. The program places bikes at stations scattered around the city. Customers use a credit card to rent a bike for a day or an hour. It’s a convenience for tourists and local residents without cars (increasingly the case with urban-dwelling young people).

Bike sharing is healthy, environmentally friendly and, according to the track record elsewhere, exceptionally safe. In the traffic chaos of New York City, there were 1.23 million annual bike share rides and no fatalities.

However, bike share is not as simple as pedaling when and where you want to go. Building and maintaining the stations, keeping the stock of bikes balanced and generating sufficient use at all stations involve costs that can be volatile. Bike-loving Seattle, for instance, saw its bike share program go insolvent, and the city faces a $1.4 million cost to bail it out.

Supporters of bringing a bike share program to Raleigh say 80 percent of the startup costs would be covered by a federal air quality grant with the city meeting the last 20 percent with a one-time $425,000 investment. After that, annual operating costs are estimated at $650,000 with $220,000 coming from fares, at least $220,000 from sponsors and the city paying $220,000 or the remaining balance.

Bike sharing could make the Capital City more tourist friendly, and it could help provide last and first mile connections to the Triangle’s expanding bus and, eventually, rail system. And Raleigh’s new bike lanes, relatively flat terrain and high population of college students would encourage an adequate volume of ridership.

Nonetheless, city council members shouldn’t regard this trendy new amenity without skepticism. For one, surveys elsewhere show that bike share riders tend to earn more and be better educated than a city’s general population. Bike share is still worth providing, but it should be acknowledged as subsidized service for a well-off population.

The city certainly should encourage the launch and do its part, but it should insist that many parties such as sponsors, advertisers and foundations join in sharing the cost and the risk.