Russell Romney is a Strong Towns member sharing today's guest post with a creative solution to the "missing middle" of biking.

The benefits of biking — from improving your health to strengthening the economic resilience of your city to saving money on transportation — are valuable for everyone, but especially for low-income individuals or families who can't afford the insanely high cost of driving everywhere: about $8,000 per year, per car, before accounting for the health risks and infrastructure costs.

As Strong Towns tirelessly expounds, towns should focus all they can on making biking safer and more accessible by creating biking infrastructure and building cities at human scale. Doing these things leads to more biking and better quality of life for everyone. However, these changes don't solve an important structural problem: Many people either a) can't afford or b) are not willing to pay the high upfront cost of a quality, transportation-worthy bike.

I call this problem the "missing middle" of biking; there are short-term bike share and full bike ownership options, but nothing in between to bridge the gap between price accessibility and overall usefulness, especially in smaller places where bike share is harder to come by. Today, I'll introduce a system of bike rental that could solve this problem.

These bikes are far too expensive — and unnecessarily blinged out — for the average person, but cheap department store bikes aren't a good option either.

These bikes are far too expensive — and unnecessarily blinged out — for the average person, but cheap department store bikes aren't a good option either.

Bad Bikes & Small Hassles

The larger issue of getting more people biking can be seen as a chicken-or-egg paradox: Which comes first, good bikes or bikeable places? Regardless of the answer, owning a good bike is imperative to biking, and attacking the problem from both sides is better than a one-dimensional approach. 

What is a quality, transportation-worthy bike? Let's call it a "Good Bike." Good Bikes have three characteristics:

  1. They are comfortable to ride on all terrain.
  2. They are reliable and durable.
  3. They can be ridden in all weather.

You may be thinking, "These bikes sound a lot like the bikes ridden in Denmark and Amsterdam!" and you're right: bikes in those places are ridden for transportation, not owned as weekend boondoggles or triathlon toys.

But in the US and other places that are not as used to bikes as transportation, people get sucked into what I call the Department Store Bike Trap: They buy a low-quality bike that breaks down very soon. Dutifully, when the bike breaks down the first few times, they take it to the bike shop to be fixed, but it breaks down again and again.

The bike itself is heavy, shifts unreliably, develops ungainly squeaks, and doesn't come with fenders for wet weather or lights for riding at night. In short, the bike just isn't useful as a form of transportation. After the initial high of having a new bike wears off, the owner grows sick of their bike not working well and they start wishing they had just bought a better bike. By this point, however, they've put so much money into the bike that they just can't justify paying for a different one. They stop biking completely, their bad bike sits in the garage, and the cycle of car dependence continues.

This problem is even worse for kids; even though having a bike is seen as a cornerstone of the childhood experience, kids have to change bikes every few years as they grow. The Department Store Bike Trap compounds every time they need a new bike, and kids are notoriously rough on their bikes — kids know what's up, they joyfully run their bikes into the ground — so their bad bikes break down even more quickly. If the cycle is bad enough, a child may not learn to appreciate how fun and useful biking can be. Or, even worse, they may never learn to ride at all.

The neglected and forgotten bike: an all too common sight on your typical college campus.

The neglected and forgotten bike: an all too common sight on your typical college campus.

A second problem, that applies whether someone has a Good Bike or not, is what I call the Small Hassles Problem: people don't like small hassles. Behavioral economists have found that people respond far more strongly to small financial or time costs than the magnitude of those costs suggest. For example, let's say someone has a flat tire. If they have to pay $15 to repair it and having the repair done is worth far more than that, they are far less likely to get it done quickly than the relatively low cost suggests. But if that repair is free, they are far more likely to do the repair quickly.

Problems, Compounded

I've see these two phenomena all the time at my university: First-year students show up with shiny (cheap) new bikes that they willingly ride for the first fall semester, until the bikes stop working or the students realize they don't work for their needs. After that, the bikes are lugged around from apartment bike rack to apartment bike rack, rarely used and underappreciated. These are people who, as low income, high-fitness individuals in places that are usually very bike friendly, could benefit most from having a good bike instead of walking, busing, or driving. (And yes, lots of people in college are low income.)

The implications of this problem are that people don't see bikes as useful forms of transportation. Low income individuals who could benefit most don't take advantage of biking. Cities don't see their hard-won biking infrastructure used as often as they want. The benefits of biking are lost.

Buying a Good Bike is hard. New, a Good Bike plus necessary accessories can cost from $500-$1,000; it isn't too bad to find a used bike for far cheaper on Craigslist, but they still usually cost more than cheap new bikes that don't seem worn out. Quality can be hard to judge in the used bike market. Additionally, people are often drawn by mountain, road, or cyclocross bikes built for racing rather than utility, and pay too much for a bike that is not useful for transportation.

Give the People What They Need

But this doesn't mean that there is no solution. What people need is a way to get a Good Bike at an accessible price. Car dealerships do something like this all the time: if people had to pay upfront costs of new cars, few people would buy new cars; dealerships offer a low(er) monthly rate that makes car ownership accessible.

One solution? Create a program that rents Good Bikes (with important features like a U-lock and lights) to people long-term for a low monthly, biannual, or annual fee. The rental includes free basic maintenance for the life of the rental at any local bike shop, which bill the program directly for its services. After the rental term is up, offer them the option to renew the rental or buy the bike at full value, minus whatever they've paid toward the program and with consideration given for how used the bike is.

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This program gives people access to Good Bikes that work reliably in all seasons. It helps parents afford Good Bikes for their kids without being hit with the high up front cost and swift depreciation of a new bike. People have fewer financial disincentives to perform routine maintenance to keep their Good Bike on the road. Finally, more people can experience biking as a normal form of transportation at a young age and carry this attitude through into their adulthood.

Allowing people to buy the bike gives them a Good Bike to have ownership over and use well; it also funds purchases of new bikes in the program and keep the program's bikes in relatively new and high-quality condition.

Hit the bBoks

Let's go over the financials of this program: the cost of a basic bike and accessories including lock, lights, and fenders approaches $500. Annual repair costs can average about $100 with an annual tune-up and occasional flat repair. So, assuming each bike is used for ten years or so, the bike needs to bring in $55 of revenue each year to cover the outlay cost and the cost of stolen bikes (assuming a conservative theft rate of 5%, and for which a reasonable fee is also charged).

This means that initial outlay costs are pretty high: about $100,000 for just 200 bikes that could service a small university or town. Yearly revenue is relatively low relative to investment. This program is clearly not a "profitable" financial investment on the surface and would be hard-pressed to make it as a business proposition.

However, this program is best suited for large organizations like companies, universities, and cities. These organizations must worry about holistic factors beyond simple return on direct financial investment.

Positive Externalities

Cities, universities, and campuses will readily sponsor bike lease/rental programs if they consider the indirect financial and nonfinancial benefits it will bring. Maximizing the benefits of the program requires making Good Bikes as price-accessible as possible, and that takes a small subsidy. Subsidizing this program dramatically increases the number of people using it and by extension, the benefits from it. Economists call these benefits "positive externalities" — benefits to others that can't be collected as revenue.

Here are a few of those benefits:

  • More bikers means less road wear, which means less road repair costs.
  • Organizations don't need to provide as many parking spots.
  • More bikers means less car traffic and fewer people calling for bigger roads and more parking.
  • Increased biking inertia means less opposition to implementing other planning policies that will help build a strong town.
  • Better quality of life increases property values.
  • Bike riders are happier and healthier.

Let's focus on just one of these factors to make the point about how valuable this program could be: parking spots. If a university plans for five hundred more students living on campus over the course of a few years and they currently are at parking capacity, they have a few options: 1) build more parking, 2) dramatically raise parking prices to lower parking demand, or 3) decrease the mode share of cars.

Building each new parking space costs around $5,000, assuming the university already has the land; if not, a parking garage costs about $15,000 per space. Each parking spot may need maintenance and oversight. Even before accounting for those costs, each new parking spot eliminated saves at least $500 per year over a ten year period, meaning the university could buy each new student a new bike every year for the same price as building new parking. So subsidizing a bike program with $50 per bike per year is like a 950% return every year. Not too shabby.

People may see the costs of a bike rental program as prohibitive to its genesis and continuing success, but taking a proper accounting of the costs involved — including better health and productivity, lower car infrastructure costs, and less traffic — shows that the program is a net financial positive.

Strong towns should still dedicate most of their focus to improving bike infrastructure, slowing down traffic, and catalyzing financially responsible and human-centered development; these factors, among others, are imperative to increasing adoption of biking as transportation. But making good bikes accessible to all goes a long way toward allowing people to fully utilize those improvements and grow the economic strength of their communities in the process.

(Top photo source: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism)

About the Author

Russell Romney just finished a bachelors degrees in economics and math. He'll be coding for a living, but he is eager to apply his love for biking and urbanism to strengthening his new community of Verona, WI.