Bikeshare pricing charts of the day

By Felix Salmon
May 15, 2012
New York's expensive bikeshare scheme last week, I got a lot of pushback from people saying that I was missing the point.

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When I wrote about New York’s expensive bikeshare scheme last week, I got a lot of pushback from people saying that I was missing the point. These bikes are designed for short trips around town, at a marginal price of zero: the large sums you pay if you keep them checked out for an hour or more are a deliberate attempt to discourage that behavior.

OK, fair enough — but in that case, if you’re charging high variable costs, the converse should be that you should charge low fixed costs. Most bike schemes work in much the same way: you pay a certain amount up front for membership, be it for a day or a week or a month or a year, and then the variable per-hour costs on top of that. If New York’s bikeshare scheme is indeed quite cheap, then one would expect the variable costs to be low.

But they’re not.

Ben Walsh put together some numbers for me, for various cities around the world with bikeshare schemes. Not all cities work in exactly the same way, and some have no direct comparison points with New York at all: in Chicago, for instance, the membership options are 1 month, 2 months, and 3 months. In any case, here’s what we managed to find, for New York’s three options:

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It’s pretty clear that New York is at the top end of the range, here: only Frankfurt rivals it in price. To have access to New York’s bikes for one day, you need to spend $9.95 — that’s more than six times the £1 one-day membership in London, and it’s significantly more, too, than you’d pay in Washington or Toronto or Paris.

The first reaction of New Yorkers, when they hear this, is surprisingly positive: they think of it as a tax on tourists, and everybody likes taxes on tourists. Let the tourists pay through the nose for their one-day memberships, and we locals will save loads of money, through an implicit cross-subsidy, on our one-year memberships.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case, either. Look at the cost of one-year memberships, and New York is still top of the league table, at $95. That’s the same as Toronto, and more than seven times what Romans pay. (Indeed, the one-time membership fee in Rome, at €10, is barely more than a daily membership in New York.)

New Yorkers, then, are being asked to spend much more money per year than bikeshare users in just about any other major city — even if they never take out a bike for more than 45 minutes. And what worries me is the deterrent effect that these prices will have.

The first trip you take, on one of the new New York bikes, will cost you at least $10, and possibly as much as $95. Cab rides don’t cost much more than that, and you can fit four people in a cab. Experienced urban cyclists like me will definitely cough up the $95, even if that hurts a little, because we know how convenient it can be to be able to take one-way bike trips in Manhattan, especially if it’s going to rain later, or if you don’t like biking back in the dark, or if you got in to work on the subway but then just need to go a mile or so to your lunch meeting.

But the great promise of the bikeshare scheme is that it will get people onto bikes who have never biked before — people who are generally very nervous about biking at all on busy urban streets. Those people are going to want to try before they buy, and the $10 cost of a trial one-day membership is high enough to give them a good excuse not to bother.

The East River Ferry is a great example of the benefits of low entry costs and the opportunity the city’s bikeshare program is missing. When the ferry was reintroduced last June, it was free for the first 12 days. Passengers flocked and even once full fares kicked in, it remained far more popular than planners projected.

That said, from a user’s perspective there are two costs worth considering before you opt into one of these schemes, and the dollar cost is only one of them. The other one is convenience — and on that front, New York’s 10,000 bikes look as though they’re going to be everywhere you might want one, so long as you stay south of 60th Street; there are even a few docking stations in Queens! In that respect, getting on a bike is (fingers crossed) going to be much easier in New York than in most other cities — and I can definitely see how that convenience might be worth paying for.

I don’t think the pricing for these bikes is going to cause the plan to fail: New Yorkers are used to paying lots of money for convenience. I just wish there were some cheaper way of getting New Yorkers to try these things out. Because $95 is enough money — roughly the same as an unlimited monthly transit pass — that a lot of people will simply not bother.

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