The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bike-share debacle isn’t unique to Baltimore. Thefts, other woes had also hit the early programs in N.Y., Paris.

A bike in the Baltimore bike-share program. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Last fall, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake touted Baltimore’s new bike-rental system as a sign of the city’s progress.

“Our bike-share program will provide citizens with convenient and on-demand access to bikes for short-distance trips throughout the city,” she had said. “This is going to be great.”

By summer, most of the 25 bike stations scattered around the city’s downtown and tourist areas were empty. Many of the 230 bikes were unaccounted for. Others had been found badly battered. About 100 bikes were in the shop on a given day in August, so many that keeping up with repairs was impossible. So the city chose to shut down the program, work on a solution, and possibly start over.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” said Veronica McBeth, the city’s transit chief. “But a smart decision in the long run.”

So many bikes have been stolen or vandalized in Baltimore that officials had to halt the bike-share system

If Baltimore takes the right steps, experts say, this rough start will go down in history as merely a temporary setback — one that many other cities have overcome — although few have been forced to take as drastic measures as Charm City and shut down.

Incidents of theft and vandalism in modern bike sharing is relatively low, studies show. Major programs such as those in Paris and New York have struggled with it and yet have gone on to become some of the most successful as measured by the high rates of usage per bike.

“While Baltimore is experiencing this, it is very important to not become too demotivated by this experience and try different techniques and methods as other operators have in the past,” said Susan Shaheen, a researcher who studies the sharing economy at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley.

In New York, a Citi Bike bicycle was snatched even before the program — with a fleet of 6,000 bicycles at the time — had officially launched in 2013. In Paris, about 80 percent of the initial 20,600 Vélib’ bikes had been stolen or damaged two years into the program. By 2013, Vélib’ was on the brink of a major scaleback as a result of the whopping number of damaged bikes.

In the inaugural year of Washington’s bike-rental program, thieves uncovered a technical vulnerability that allowed them to force bikes out of docks, and the locking system had to be reinforced. In its seven years of operations, Capital Bikeshare has lost 60 of its 4,100 bikes to theft. In Philadelphia, with a fleet of 1,200 bicycles, the number is 50 in two years after opening.

Baltimore officials would not disclose how many bikes are assumed gone, but users of the program struggled to find bikes on the racks all summer. Thieves were ripping bikes off the stations to later dump them in alleys and on sidewalks. A teenager was caught on video “rocking the bike and jarring it loose,” police said. The Baltimore Sun reported that as many as 30 bikes were stolen in a single day.

The city shut down the program Sept. 17 to make security improvements, and officials hope to reopen by Oct. 15, with a new and improved locking system for the docks.

“What is different about Baltimore City is that because our system is small, any bike that comes out for extended maintenance is going to impact the operations,” said Liz Cornish, executive director of the Baltimore-based advocacy group Bikemore. The challenge now for the city, she said, is to “figure out how to minimize the risk so that we are not putting people in a position where the crime is easy to commit.”

Dockless bike-share companies race to Washington

In other places, program operators and governments have instituted ways for users to report unattended bikes and suspicious activity around stations. Some have added surveillance cameras and strategically placed stations in well-lit areas. Operators work with police to get more patrolling around bike stations.

Typically, bike-share bikes are built with a sturdy frame, graffiti-resistant paint and nonremovable seats. They have proprietary bolts, axle nuts, fenders and handlebars, which means removing parts often requires special tools. These proprietary features, the use of GPS trackers and user-registration requirements have kept bikes from going missing.

In most U.S. cities that have bike-share — as many as 119 in 2016 — the number of stolen bicycles was so low that the theft rate was less than 0.5 percent, according to a 2014 report about public bike-share by the Mineta Transportation Institute. The trends have not changed, Shaheen said, who was one of the authors, which is why she said “Baltimore does seem to be a bit of an anomaly.”

Theft and vandalism brought the first attempts of public bike-share to failure. Soon after the first urban bike-sharing concept was introduced in 1965 in Amsterdam, police confiscated the bikes claiming they created an invitation to theft. The city had deployed 50 white bikes for public use — no lock and no cost to users; just bikes available on a first-come, first-served basis. Similar programs in Europe also failed.

Then a coin-deposit system in the early 1990s reduced the odds of theft and vandalism, but the problem was still pervasive. Uniquely designed bikes at stations were available to anonymous users, who paid with coins to unlock and borrow them. It turned out, the coin deposit wasn’t a big incentive to return the bicycles, researchers say.

These days, bikes are typically taken from riders who leave them unattended and from racks when clever thieves use stolen credit cards.

“It is the real world. You can’t sugarcoat it entirely,” said Aaron Ritz, a transportation programs manager in Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems, who runs the city’s Indego bike program. “Things do get broken, bikes do go missing.”

In some way, it is the cost of doing business, he said. Roads get potholes. Trains break down. Graffiti is spray-painted aboard buses.

“It is annoying, but you have to put it in the budget that things are going to break and things are going to get abused. It is the fact of life, unfortunately,” Ritz said.

Capital Bikeshare works to recruit minorities and low-income residents

Because bike-share in many cities is known as an elitist system used mostly by young, more affluent white men, cities such as Baltimore already face a challenge getting communities to embrace it.

Some experts say the first step to fighting crime may be making the bike resources available in those areas where they are more likely to go missing, where crime is higher, but there also is greater need for affordable transportation. Some of those areas may require more education and an adjustment period.

“Making people familiar with the role of these services and what it means to their community is really important so that they embrace it,” Shaheen said.

Philadelphia’s approach has been to make community outreach and affordability a central part of its bike program. Indego’s subsidized pass program, which provides $5 monthly memberships, led to increased ridership from people earning less than $35,000 per year, from 27 percent to 44 percent. And, it also translated to less damage to the program’s bikes in a city also battered by crime, officials said.

In working with the community, systems gain their trust and support and let people know that the services are for them.

“That’s crucial,” Ritz said. “If you have something in your community and it doesn’t seem like it’s for you or people like you or people that you know, maybe you don’t value it the same way.”