Can Bike-Sharing Programs Help Cycling Break Away from Its Leisure Image?

In competitive sports cycling, when a group of riders pulls ahead of the pack, it’s called a breakaway. As a handful of startups roll out bike-sharing programs across the US, can they help the bicycle break away from its image as a health and leisure activity?

Bike-sharing services, which allow users to rent bikes for short periods of time at competitive rates, are expanding in American cities. But several obstacles stand in the way of higher adoption. While nearly four in 10 Americans own a bike, just 14% have ever used a bike-sharing service, according to a new survey by ReportLinker.

While nearly four in 10 Americans own a bike, just 14% have ever used a bike-sharing service

One explanation for this low adoption rate is that two-thirds (67%) of Americans view biking as exercise, rather than a mode of travel. Fewer than one in five view it as a means of transportation, although single people are more inclined to view biking as a means of getting from point A to point B (32%). Men also are more likely to list cycling as a passion (11%) as opposed to their female counterparts (3%), ReportLinker found.

For 67% of Americans, biking is a way to exercise.

Thus, when they do bike, Americans most often do so for exercise (61% of mentions) or for leisure (48% of mentions). They’re less likely to use bicycles to commute (12% of mentions), although men are more likely to do so (19% of mentions) than women.

61% of Americans us a bike to exercise, 48% for leisure.

Another obstacle is frequency of use. Just 9% of owners say they use their bike every day, according to ReportLinker, and nearly one in five never ride at all. Meanwhile a quarter of those surveyed use their bike weekly, monthly, or yearly, respectively. The most common reasons for low usage include no time (39%) and lack of motivation (29%).

Then there’s the challenge of distance, particularly between home and work. Half of respondents to ReportLinker’s survey say they live too far from the office to commute by bike. They cite both traffic (13%) and a lack of bicycle paths (12%) as deterrents. Then there’s the challenge of distance, particularly between home and work. Half of respondents to ReportLinker’s survey say they live too far from the office to commute by bike. They cite both traffic (13%) and a lack of bicycle paths (12%) as deterrents. The group most likely to ride their bikes to work are city dwellers (25%). This isn’t surprising, as the distances between home and work in the city are typically shorter, making biking a more viable option.

Despite these challenges, bike-sharing providers have some good reasons to be optimistic about their ability to transform the biking experience. For example, startups Spin and Bluegogo are backing a new, convenient dock-less system in which riders can use their smartphones to locate available bikes. Once riding time is up, there’s no need for users to search for a docking location. They can leave the bikes just about anywhere. The companies believe the money saved on docking stations can be invested in municipal infrastructure improvements for cycling and used to lower the cost of the bike-sharing services.

Of course, dock-free services aren’t completely without safety issues. In China – where the systems have taken off – bikes have been left in fire lanes and blocked pedestrian crossways, creating hazards. Both San Francisco and Austin, two cities where Spin and Bluegogo have focused their efforts, have experienced complications similar to those in China.

A combination of law and technology will be needed to alleviate these issues and improve the riding experience. In March, San Francisco passed a law establishing rules and a permitting process for the dock-free system in an attempt to tackle potential problems before things get out of hand.

New technology also promises to improve rider safety. For example, smart helmets, which allow riders to get directions, listen to music and take phone calls, are just hitting the market. As these developments reduce concerns about cost, safety and traffic, adoption rates will likely rise.

There’s another bright spot for bike-sharing providers too: Users are generally happy with the experience. Nearly seven in 10 respondents to the ReportLinker survey say they’re satisfied. Meanwhile, a third of respondents who have tried bike-sharing services say they’re still using them. These findings are good signs for bike-sharing companies.

Still, they have their marketing work cut out for them. To increase adoption and improve customer retention, they’ll need to find ways to encourage users to try the service and to stick with it. For example, among former users, more than half (56%) said their reason for no longer using the service was that they did not need it anymore.

One way to encourage usages may be to focus marketing messages on the health benefits of commuting to work. A third of those biking to work say they view it as an alternative to exercise, according to ReportLinker, while a quarter say it’s healthier and one in five say it’s less expensive. Proponents of bike-sharing often extoll the positive impact on the environment, but only 17% of those who commute by bike cite this as their primary motivator. Thus, this isn’t as strong a selling point as health benefits are.

Electric bikes might be another way to encourage riders, especially those who need to commute longer distances. Although less than 5% of Americans own one, the market is growing. The Electric Bike Worldwide Report predicts the bicycle industry will grow from 200 million in 2016 to two billion by 2050. What’s more, new technologies are available that can turn ordinary bikes into electric bikes. For example, the Copenhagen Wheel by Superpedestrian uses “human-enhancing technology” to increase pedaling power up to 10 times. An added bonus is the ability for riders to choose how much assistance they want, which allows exercise enthusiasts to get in a good workout without sacrificing the extra speed.

31% of Americans use a hybrid bike, 28% a mountain bike.

Although Americans may predominantly view biking as a form of exercise, the growth of bike-sharing programs in cities could shift opinions, especially as new technologies and services make bikes safer, easier to use, and more accessible. If bike-sharing programs can build consumer enthusiasm, major American cities might find their streets more crowded by commuters on bicycles.

This survey conducted by ReportLinker reached 513 online respondents representative of the US population. Interviews were conducted between June 16th and June 19th.