It’s been 50 years since the first public bike share system was established in Amsterdam in 1965. With the help of quickly advancing computer technologies, bikesharing has seen rapid growth in cities across the globe, in the twenty-first century. As of June 2014, over 700 cities worldwide have bike share systems, not including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor, among others that have come on line since then. As a relatively young but fast-growing mode of transportation, many new questions have surfaced about how bike share systems should work, and how they can best be managed. The management of public bike share systems has grown on a city-by-city basis, with varied models of system ownership and operation, from private companies and non-profits to local governments. With such diverse public operators a key question has arisen: Is public bike share a mode of public transportation?  

As a transportation service that is open and available to the public on a regular and continuing basis, bike share fits the mold of public transportation, however, in the United States, Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funding for bike share systems cannot be spent on bicycles for bike share use. While bike share operators across the country have been able to use other funding sources to purchase bikes, such as CMAQ funding for ArborBike in Ann Arbor and TAP for the future Detroit public bike share system (both CMAQ and TAP are FHWA sources), this financial barrier from the FTA creates unnecessary bureaucratic complexity for public transportation providers interested in bringing bike share to their community. It also artificially nudges the concept of bike sharing into a gray area within transportation infrastructure – if it’s a publicly available transportation service, but it’s not public transportation, then what is it?

The evidence presented below clarifies bike-share’s function as a mode of public transportation, and the advantages it can offer transit providers. The FTA should officially recognize bike share as a mode of public transportation, and therefore permit use of FTA funding for the procurement of bike share bicycles.

Clear Evidence: Bike Share = Public Transportation

How is public transportation defined? The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) defines public transportation as,

“Transportation by bus, rail, or other conveyance, either publicly or privately owned, which provides to the public general or special service on a regular and continuing basis. Also known as ‘mass transportation,’ ‘mass transit,’ and ‘transit.’”

While APTA specifically names bus and rail within this definition, “other conveyance” can encapsulate bike share, as well as other transportation modes such as water ferry or cable car. The FTA interprets “public transportation [service]” as “any transportation service provided using vehicles purchased with FTA capital assistance.” The key distinction here is that public transportation is any publicly available vehicle by which one can travel.

Bike share, as defined by the Mineta Transportation Institute, is simply “shared use of a bicycle fleet by the public.” The active function of a public bike share system is to provide a publicly available vehicle by which one can move from one place to another. The bus and train do the same thing; the biggest difference is the vehicle’s driver. With bike share, the user drives the bicycle, but for buses, trains, and ferries, an employee of the service-providing agency drives the vehicle. While the distinction between the user acting as a driver versus a rider may be clear-cut, it does not negate the fact that the bike, like a bus or train, is a publicly available vehicle by which one can travel.

Chris Hamilton, former chief of Arlington County Commuter Services, explains that like bus and rail transit, “there’s capital infrastructure in the form of stations and bikes to consider.” Hamilton points out that the bikes and the stations are physical capital that must be purchased and maintained by a service operator in order for the bike share system to function.

Philadelphia's Indego bike share system uses smart-docks, which lock and electronically check in/out bikes. Photo By: Dan Sommerville

Philadelphia's Indego bike share system uses smart-docks, which lock and electronically check in/out bikes. Photo By: Dan Sommerville

In addition to the upkeep of the physical capital, the service operator needs to effectively distribute the bikes throughout the system, especially in a smart-dock bikeshare system. Bike redistribution within the bike share system is an important service provided by the bike share system operator for optimal system performance. For example, if an abundance of one-way trips are taken from the east side of town to the west side of town, few will remain on the east side. In a smart-dock system, if a system dock becomes full, the operator can redistribute bikes to other empty docks around the system, freeing up dock space in one location and maintaining access to available bikes for riders in other locations. While redistribution of bikes is fundamentally different from distributing buses and trains through service timing and driving, it is still an integral service provided by an operator.

Bike share operators themselves are increasingly affirming bike share as public transit. Bicycle Transit Systems, a bikeshare implementation and operation company, recognizes bike share as public transit through its brand name. Chattanooga’s bike share system, Bike Chattanooga, features a similar but smaller naming recognition technique in their website header, “Chattanooga Bicycle Transit System.” Bike Chattanooga goes further by marketing their system as “an eco-friendly, economical public bike transit system.” Branding communicates to the public the role these operators see for their service: public transit.

The Service Advantage of Including Bike Share in a Public Transportation System

There is also an opportunity for transit agencies to extend service areas with bikeshare. Eric Jaffe, CityLab’s New York Bureau Chief, adds that bike share can also play an important role in extending the reach of motorized transit. Citing Rui Wang and Chen Lui, Jaffe points out that, “More than half of all Americans live within two miles of the closest transit facility, a very feasible bike ride.” As Jaffe explains, it can be a missed opportunity for transit service providers if they do not consider how and where bike share could extend the reach of more intensive transit modes like bus and rail.

Using bike share to extend a public transportation service area creates greater last-mile accessibility, especially for non-local users. As John Brazil, Bicycle andPedestrian Program Coordinator for the City of San Jose, puts it, bicycling “is the last mile in transit.” If the nearest bus or train stop and your location or final destination are separated by only a mile or two, a bike can quickly shorten the time it takes to connect these two points.  While a bicycle rack can be placed at any bus or train station, this requires an individual to have his/her own bike. If you are visiting from out of town, that is not likely an option. Bike share can fill that gap.

FTA: Currently Supports Bike Share Implementation For All But the Bike

Currently, the chief point against recognizing bike share as a mode of public transportation is the fact that the FTA “has not included bicycles within the definition of public transportation,” and therefore FTA funds cannot yet be used to purchase bicycles for a bike share system. However, “FTA funding may be used for bike share docks, equipment, and other capital costs including infrastructure and amenities related to bicycling, as long as they are related to public transportation.”

In the about section of their website, the FTA posits their defined organizational role based on the modes they consider to be public transportation:

“Public transportation includes buses, subways, light rail, commuter rail,monorail, passenger ferry boats, trolleys, inclined railways, and people movers. The federal government, through the FTA, provides financial assistance to develop new transit systems and improve, maintain, and operate existing systems.”

The question of the eligibility of bicycling implements for FTA funding has been raised before, and the FTA has responded with their Final Policy Statement on the Eligibility of Pedestrian and Bicycle Improvements Under Federal Transit Law. In this statement they officially recognize,

“all pedestrian improvements located within one-half mile and all bicycle improvements located within three miles of a public transportation stop or station shall have a de facto physical and functional relationship to public transportation.”

In addition to recognizing the physical and functional relationship between bicycling and public transportation, the FTA has also supported professional programming for integrating bike share and public transportation. The FTA’s mixed signals acknowledge that, public transportation and bike share are indeed linked, but bicycles themselves cannot yet be purchased using federal funding from theFederal Transit Administration in the United States.

FTA: Include Bicycles in the Definition of Public Transportation, Fund Bicycles

The support for bike sharing to be accepted as a mode of public transportation is abundant and growing (See: Elliot Martin and Susan Shaheen, Laura Nelson, Yonah Freemark, and Eric Jaffe). The barrier rests in the fact that federal funding for public transportation sourced through the FTA cannot yet be spent on purchasing bicycles. Based on the fact that bike share bicycles are another publicly accessible vehicle for transportation, and that they are available to the public on “a regular and continuing basis,” bike share bicycles fit the definition of public transportation. In addition to this definition alignment, bike share can be an advantageous method for transit providers to extend their service areas into the “last mile of transit.” The FTA already supports bike share through allowing their funds to be used for other capital needed to run a bike share system, and promotes bike share through non-monetary means. It only makes sense that the FTA should formally recognize bike share as a mode of public transportation, and henceforth enable funding for the procurement of bicycles to be used in bike share systems.