Bike-sharing's big problem: missing bikes

Chicago's Divvy has 3,000 bikes already, but it can't add more as planned. Other big-city systems face the same problem.

Urban bike-sharing programs have exploded— there are now more than 30 in the U.S., with plans for many more. But there are growing pains, and users can't see the biggest one: the bikes they’re not riding, because the biggest supplier went bankrupt six months ago. The biggest, most-popular programs won't expand this year, and planned programs in other cities have gotten stalled in the pipeline. 

For example, a few days before Chicago’s Divvy Bikes celebrated its first birthday in June, general manager Elliot Greenberger noted how much the program’s subscriber base had grown in 2014.  

"We’ve doubled, and it’s only June right now," he said. "We continue to see people signing up at about a hundred a day, sometimes more."

Here's what the growth curve looks like since Divvy started: 

 Here's another, perhaps even more impressive way of looking at Divvy's growth curve:

 Startups would envy this kind of growth. Programs in Washington, D.C., New York and elsewhere have taken similar trajectories.

However, Divvy was supposed to expand this spring — adding about 60 percent more bikes and docking stations. That’s on hold. The company that supplies Divvy’s equipment— Public Bike System Co.*went bankrupt in January. That company also supplies New York, Washington, Boston, Toronto, San Francisco, and other cities.

Those programs are managed by Divvy’s parent company, Alta Bicycle Share. When asked how long it has been since the supplier shipped new bikes, Alta Vice President Mia Birk pauses for a moment.

"Ooh," she says, "It must have been pre-bankruptcy."

That means no new bikes for any of Alta's cities. Meanwhile, programs in cities like Baltimore, Vancouver and Portland  also slated to be managed by Alta and supplied by Public Bike Share  have delayed their launch dates. The equipment includes proprietary designs, so going with another supplier isn’t an easy option.

 

"It’s been a disruption!" says Birk. "I mean, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s been really challenging." Birk says Alta has been working hard to get a new supply of bikes, but new bikes probably won’t arrive until 2015.

"Seems like there were some major promises made, and nobody looked closely at the financials or the supply chain," says Jeremiah Owyang of Crowd Companies. "That’s what you’re seeing here. Everybody went with the one provider, and overwhelmed them."

Colin Hughes studies bike-share worldwide at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. He says Public Bike System Co.’s bankruptcy doesn’t worry him.

"There’s plenty of other companies out there making bike-share bikes," says Hughes. "You may see the types of bikes used in some cities thrown out. But I don’t think you’re going to see bike-sharing as a whole thrown out."

Bike-sharing continues to grow worldwide. More than one city in China has more shared bikes than all of the United States. 


 

 *CORRECTION:  The original version of this article misstated the name of a company that provides equipment for municipal bicycle-sharing programs. It is the Public Bike System Co. The text has been corrected.

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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