It's been a few months since private bike share companies Lime, Spin and Ofo started leaving thousands of green, orange and yellow bikes in our streets this summer. Some people are still having a hard time dealing with it. The bikes make some people angry, annoyed and worried, judging by what they say and write about them.
These complaints are meritless. I think as a city, we need to stop freaking out about the bike shares. Really, we should be celebrating them.
I go for a ride on one of the bike shares at least twice a week. It's an enjoyable way to spend a half hour, a convenient way to get around without a car. Plus, I hate most other types of exercise.
It seems that most of the people complaining about the bikes don't use them, because your perspective changes when the Burke Gilman trail is under your tires, and you see the different-colored bikes zipping past you. Like me, lots of people are using these bikes, whether to get around or because it's fun.
The data shows that these bikes are popular — just one of the companies, Spin, did better in its first week than Pronto (the previous, failed city-run bike share) did in its best ever week.
So my first defense of the bike shares is that lots of people are out on the streets and trails, being active and less carbon-wasteful. If they're like me, they wouldn't be there without the bike shares. I haven't biked this much in years, and it's entirely because I can find a bike anywhere, anytime. I own a bike, but I'm just not going to take it with me every day everywhere I go.
But you'll see lots of concerned and befuddled posts in neighborhood groups about the bikes. "I am wondering whats next for our bike share fiasco," someone wrote in a Beacon Hill Seattle Facebook group. "I see them in water at Green Lake, in trees, in pieces, some I see piled up in peoples yards, rolled down embankments." The person posted a photo of a Spin bike that someone, for reasons known only to themselves, tucked into a plastic-wrapped mattress.
The bike share shaming Twitter account Dockless Bike Fail @DocklessBike is dedicated to posting pictures of broken bikes or bikes left in ridiculous places.
Something I find fascinating, which I'll come back to later, is the total humorlessness of the people who are concerned about the bikes. How you could look at that picture and not crack a smile is beyond me.
First I want to respond to three common "concerns" I see and hear regularly about the bike share: That the bikes are ugly, they're unsafe, and that people are abusing and hurting them.
The way I see it, these concerns are either ridiculous, or in the case of the safety concerns, don't hold up.
If you think the bikes are ugly and clutter up the city, that's fine, but, well...have you seen the cars here? There are 435,000 cars in Seattle. We have the most cars per capita of any major densely populated U.S. city.
Just like the bikes, cars are left everywhere around the city, cluttering up spaces that could be used for lots of other things. You can't look in any direction in Seattle without resting your eyes on a row of cars. I know, they've become totally normalized, but that doesn't make it right or healthy.
When I see a row of bikes, it doesn't offend my eyes, because it's a reminder that we have hundreds of easily-accessible bikes all over the city, that don't pollute and are good for people's health. Sure, you might find recycling bins ugly, but they're good and necessary, so...who cares? We need to start thinking of these bikes as a societal good, because they are. Most of us could really use the exercise.
A more reasonable-seeming concern is that these bikes are dangerous and will lead to deaths and injury because people will be riding these bikes without helmets. First of all, yes, helmets are good and everyone should wear one. It's required by law anyway. But this fear might be overblown.
As reporter Sara Bernard outlined in the Seattle Weekly this summer, helmets aren't what we should be focusing on when it comes to bike safety. The real causes of fatal and dangerous collisions are "cars, distracted drivers, and a lack of safe areas to ride a bike." Bernard cites a study that says that when it comes to what makes cyclists safe, "helmets make only a minor contribution."
There's also the worry that lots of inexperienced people will be using the bikeshares for the first time and without helmets, which will lead to more accidents. But consider this: Bike share systems have been around for almost a decade all over the country, and in the majority of places, there are no helmet laws like we have here. How many people do you think have died using bike shares in almost a decade? The answer is two. And this is after millions of trips — as Bernard points out, New York's bike share program has seen 43 million trips since it began in 2013. This is compared to 1,000 bicycle deaths and about 450,000 injuries in 2015 alone.
So yes, you should still wear a helmet. But will we see an epidemic of bikeshare-related injuries and deaths? Probably not. Meanwhile, we have a real epidemic of car-related injuries and deaths (just try scrolling through SDOT's incident list — it will take a while). In Washington state in 2015, a collision happened every 4 and a half minutes, and a person died in a crash every 16 hours.
This brings me to another common complaint — that people are treating the bikes badly and that...therefore we shouldn't have them in our city. Or something. It's often dressed up as concern for the bikes, but morphs into opposition to the whole bike share program. A good example of this is the Dockless Bike Fail Twitter account. At first, the account seems to be highlighting the absurd places people leave the bikes and the unfortunate examples of people vandalizing them. But then you realize that whoever is behind this account really wants the entire thing out of the city. The tone isn't snarky or amused — it's gloomy and apocalyptic.
A beautiful view of our beautiful city...photo bombed by a pile of bike litter. Makes me so incredibly sad. #COMEONSeattle #docklessbikefail pic.twitter.com/EBlVXeJEJY
— Dockless Bike Fail (@DocklessBike) November 1, 2017
This is where I suspect that the supposed concern over the poor mistreated bikes is really about something else, because as an argument for why the bike share is bad, it's really weak.
Sure, people are leaving the bikes in inconvenient or weird places and occasionally vandalism them. That's not ideal, and damaging them is incredibly stupid. On the other hand, a couple bikes left in the sidewalk, or on their sides...doesn't seem like a huge deal? And is it just me, or is it kind of funny to see pictures of bikes in crazy places? There's something about the audacity and creativity of it that it's hard not to admire. And since when has anyone cared about some mild misuse of corporate property? Sure, leaving graffiti on a McDonald's, for example, to send a message is vandalism, but who besides McDonald's cares?
Writer Knute Berger makes an interesting point in a Seattle Magazine piece titled "It's Actually a Good Thing That Bike Shares Are Being Left in Trees":
"We have endured so many serious and sometimes obnoxious efforts to promote bike riding in Seattle—road diets, the 'war on cars' and self-righteous bike anarchists who block drivers, for example—that cycling has taken on the air of an arrogant cause, instead of something that’s fun, useful and ordinary."
The creative vandalism and unorthodox placement of the bikes feels like people taking ownership of them. It's a sign that people are using them and care enough to play pranks with them. I think overall, that's a good thing. Plus, we can all appreciate this: