Bike sharing and bike rental should cooperate, not compete, on tourism

While in Boston recently, I came across the following advertisement for Urban AdvenTours, a bike shop in Boston, stuck to a Hubway station.

Aside from the unseemly nature of having public property (the Hubway station) subverted as advertising for a private competitor, I take issue with the general tone of the advertisement: that Hubway is “not cost effective for hassle free exploration”, that bike rental and Hubway are “recreation vs. transportation”, etc.

At the core of this is a simple question: can bike sharing services, like Hubway, be used effectively by tourists? Or are they indeed better served by full-service bike rental firms? I would argue that there isn’t a precise, clear-cut answer, but it’s not as one-sided as Urban AdvenTours makes it out to be.

In many cities, including Boston and Washington, D.C., taking transit around town can sometimes be an exercise in frustration. Because of the way the transit networks in these cities are laid out, a seemingly simple trip between two nearby stations (like Charles/MGH and North Station, or Eastern Market and Union Station) might require a transfer. Now, transfers aren’t bad, but for many tourists unfamiliar with the transit system, they seem like too much hassle.

So, when two points are too far to walk comfortably, and connected only by a circuitous transit route, what’s the best option? In some cases, like between Eastern Market and Union Station, there is a direct transit link, albeit one that’s not on the Metro map: the DC Circulator bus. Suppose our hypothetical tourists don’t want to take the bus, either.

Now what? Here bike sharing provides an excellent option: swipe your card, take a bike, and you’re on your way. Unlike bike rental, you only have a bike when you need one—there’s no need to worry about finding a place to lock up the bike, or whether you can take your bike on transit, etc.

On the other hand, what if you’re not a confident city cyclist and you’d like some human guidance along the way, or perhaps you’re looking for a tandem bike, a mountain bike, or perhaps a tune-up for your own bike? In that case, a full-service bike shop is the only option.

This, therefore, is why bike sharing and bike rental shops should cooperate, not compete, when it comes to bikes for tourists. Urban AdvenTours is right to say that if you’re a Hubway member, and you walk up to a station, buy a 24-hour membership for $5, then take a bike and ride for two hours, your total expenses will come to $27. But are you really going to spend two hours continuously riding a Hubway bicycle? I don’t think so.

Sure, you can rent a bicycle from Urban AdvenTours for far less than it would cost to keep a Hubway bike checked out for 24 hours, but do you really need the bicycle all day long? With Hubway, you don’t have to worry about what to do with the bicycle once you get where you’re going—dock it at a station, and you’re done. Plus, if you ride for less than 30 minutes, you pay no usage fees at all—just the Hubway membership fee. From that perspective, $5 for an unlimited number of 30-minute rides all day long looks awfully good.

The “quick station-to-station transportation” that Urban AdvenTours attributes to Hubway makes it attractive not just for commuters but also tourists who’d rather get some exercise and see the city from above-ground rather than inhaling copious quantities of brake dust and tunnel dirt while waiting for a train.

Hubway explicitly refers their users to local bike shops for long-term rentals and cycling equipment (including helmets). It’s only fair to ask bike shops to do the same: don’t misrepresent what bike sharing is, and make it clear to tourists that in many cases bike sharing can meet their needs—it’s not just for commuters!