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Off the Charts

May 10, 2012

The numbers alone do not tell the story.

The bar graph above is, of course, as meaningless as it is tongue-in-cheek.  Missing is any contextual data, such as bikes per capita, station density, or annual membership fees.  My point in making such a crude graphic is that throwing up a chart titled “What Bike Share Costs — A Comparative Chart,” and not including a host of other factors doesn’t tell anyone much about what regular bike share usage will in fact cost.

Andrea Bernstein imagines some very extreme scenarios in her Transportation Nation post.  Scenario one:

…when the system expands to Bedford-Stuyvesant and the Upper West Side, one can easily imagine a one-way commute of an hour. Alta officials have said one-way commutes are frequent in Washington, DC. When it’s raining in the morning but nice in the afternoon, a user might want to ride home from, say, Lincoln Center to Crown Heights.

Emphasis mine.  That one way-commutes are frequent is not at all the same as them being long.  And when the system expands, it does not necessarily follow that commuting distances will increase with it.  An Upper West Side resident who lives at 79th Street might be anxiously awaiting for the system to expand so he can ride to 72nd before hopping on a downtown 2/3, thereby avoiding the need to transfer from the 1 train.

Scenario two involves the idea of new riders and fairness, which Andrea brings up in response to some critical comments:

In Washington, many riders have been lured into the system who are not regular cyclists. Should it cost newer riders with longer commutes $4 to get to work on a bike?

There’s no proof that newer cyclists live any further away from their place of work than veteran bike commuters.  In fact, there may be thousands of bike commuters waiting to be born who live in or near the Manhattan CBD.  Bike share will provide an easy and risk-free way for them to experiment with riding to work.

Additionally, fairness is not necessarily a built-in feature of transportation systems.  Subway fare to Midtown Manhattan is the same whether the journey begins at Brighton Beach or Bowling Green.  But if someone is currently spending $104 each month to get from Union Square to Grand Central and back, switching to bike share could bring that person’s montly commuting cost down to just $7.92.  Seems pretty fair to me.

Second, no one is “lured into the system.”  At a certain point people need to take personal responsibility for understanding how bike share works before signing up.  How very Conservative of me, I know.

All of this hemming and hawing about “expensive bike share” is a bit like saying that using an iPhone is more expensive than other types of smartphones, but basing the comparison on the true-but-rare case of an American forgetting to turn off data roaming while traveling abroad.  Such bank-busting bills satisfy the media’s insatiable need for faux outrage, but they don’t tell the real story of how cell phone plans are meant to work.

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