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Getting Around: Bike Share Systems in the Bay Area

San Francisco, California – January 3rd, 2019; Ford Ride Sharing Bikes at the Parking Hub on Townsend Street

If you want to experience the best of the Bay Area, a bicycle may be your best bet. That’s easier now than ever with more and more bike share systems popping up all over the region. 

The bikes are stationed throughout the city, some are even dockless and don’t require you to find a station when you’re done with your ride. Cost varies depending on the service provider and length of the ride. Lyft, for example, offers rides starting at $3.50

Bike sharing rocketed in popularity in 2017, prompting the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) to implement a regulatory and permitting framework. That included a set of rules that aim to make bikes more accessible to everybody. 

Some rules for bike share systems in the region include: 

The good news is that there are a growing number of options for riders in need of a bike. Even if you’re an avid rider, bike share amenities can play a big role in getting around the city. SFMTA estimates that nearly 75% of its Bay Area Bikeshare members already own at least one bicycle and use the services for short trips or as a first- and last-mile option for longer trips by transit.

Systems in the Bay Area

Bay Wheels: This service, currently provided by Lyft, makes it easy to find a bike and is actually one of the largest bike share providers in the nation. Stations and bikes are available throughout San Francisco, the East Bay, and San Jose. Both electric and traditional bikes are available through Bay Wheels. There are monthly and yearly memberships available, as well as an income-restricted program, called Bike Share For All, that makes bike share affordable for everybody. 

Private Rental Companies: The San Francisco region is home to a number of smaller businesses that rent bicycles. They’re a good option if you’re looking for a longer-term rental (more than a few blocks) or plan on taking an afternoon tour around the city. These companies will cost more than the bike share bikes you see all over the region, but you’re guaranteed a ride for as long as you book it for. 

Santa Cruz County: Starting in June 2023, UC Santa Cruz community members will be able to rent e-bikes through the Regional Electric Bike Share Program, a partnership between UCSC, the County of Santa Cruz, Cabrillo College, and the cities of Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville. Approximately 400 BCycle e-bikes and 800 docks will be available throughout the City of Santa Cruz and UCSC. Walk-up, monthly and annual rental rates are available.

The Pros and Cons of Bike Share

Having access to a bicycle at all times in the Bay Area is a luxury of urban life. That’s becoming the case in most major cities across the nation, and along with it are some advantages and some challenges.

“We joke about bike sharing as the ‘gateway drug’ to (serious) cycling,” Carolyn Szczepanski, head of the women’s cycling program at the League of American Bicyclists tells USAToday. “If you can step outside and you have a shiny bike waiting for you, it’s easier.”

Access is a benefit of bike share. Here are a few others: 

  • No maintenance costs. When you use a bike share bike, somebody else will take care of cleaning and upkeep. 
  • Convenience. Bikes are there when you need them. This is especially useful if you’re already riding transit. Bikes can help you cover the distance that isn’t serviced by rail or bus without being much of a hassle. 
  • Worry-free security. Bike theft is a problem in most big cities, but not an issue when you use bike share systems. Simply pay for your ride and go. You won’t have to worry about cut bike locks or thieves. 

As a whole, studies find that bike share programs have a positive effect on communities. 

In one New York City-based study, researchers concluded that bike share programs reduced two premature deaths, 355 disability-adjusted life years, and provided over $15 million in health economic impacts.

Improvements in air quality and traffic safety across U.S. cities will further maximize the health benefits, they said. 

On the other hand, bike share might not be for every rider. Some cons include: 

  • Cost. If you’re a regular ride, the cost of each ride can really add up over time. 
  • Distance + Comfort. If you’re often riding long distances, it might make more sense to have a bike that’s going to be comfortable for the trip. Bike share bikes are often pretty minimal and don’t afford riders the same customizations as your own bike might.