Utpal M. Dholakia, the George R. Brown Professor of Marketing at Rice University, recently published an article on Psychology Today’s The Science of Behavior blog expressing opinions on “How to Make Bike-Sharing More Popular.” He writes, although public transit has not been the most popular form of transportation, bike-sharing is a “breath of fresh air.” He wants it to succeed and offers his expert advice.
After explaining what bike-sharing is, for those unfamiliar, he continues explaining the potential benefits of bike-sharing programs. Consumer control over destination and route, health benefits, virtuous self-esteem, and financial attraction are all cited. Consumer control? Traveling from point A to point B is essentially the cyclist’s sole responsibility – good or bad. Health benefits? Of course cycling is healthier than sedentary forms of transit. Virtuous self-esteem? The traveler may feel a welling of pride while choosing a healthier, cleaner alternative. Financial attraction? Due to government subsidies, bike-sharing is likely the cheapest transportation alternative on the market.
Whatever the benefits, Dholakia speculates on the rather low number of bike-sharers. Why is bike-sharing having a tough time gaining steam in certain areas? Citing a study conducted by Rice University’s own Kinder Institute of Urban Research, he writes that fewer than 2,000 weekly cycle checkouts are reported across Houston’s bike-sharing system. This of course represents a drop in the ocean when compared to a nationwide or international study.
He goes on to speculate as to why Houston residents, and urban citizens in general, are cautious about bike-sharing – or even just riding a bike. In his opinion, safety is a overwhelming concern when it comes to a person deciding to make a switch to cycling.
In Houston, an investigation states that there were 950 crashes and 213 hit-and-runs in a single year involving cyclists with little or no repercussions for the motorists involved. In May 2015, a cyclist was hit and killed during a memorial for another cyclist who had been struck by a car and killed. A quote from Bicycling magazine regarding the city, “In traffic-snarled Houston, where two-thirds of the population is overweight and nearly one-quarter lives below the poverty line, cycling makes sense. But debris and potholes mar the sliver thin bike lanes. Drivers don’t look, or don’t care.”
Dholakia mentions nationwide studies as well. Over 700 American cyclists were killed and over 48,000 injured in 2013 and one estimate put the risk of being injured while riding a bike at 13 times more than when in an automobile.
He believes bike-sharing ventures should address the risk and educate their customers and potential customers instead of ignoring the issue or sweeping it under the rug. The perception of risking bodily harm may be the single biggest obstacle when it comes to the popularity of bike-sharing. According the interpretation of research done by consumer psychologists over the last quarter century, Dholakia lays out what he believes needs to be done in order for bike-sharing to be successful.
First, “bring issues of safety and rider risks out in the open.” Shed light on the issues and explain how they are being addressed. Second, “understand the degree of risk perceived by different potential rider groups.” Identify demographics most likely to view urban cycling as low-risk and market towards them. Lastly, identify the city areas where riders’ perceived and actual risk for injury is low. He suggests placing docking stations near safer, more cyclist-friendly areas rather than just shooting for high-density population areas.
Dholakia wants bike-sharing to succeed. Not only in Houston but beyond. “Unless consumer perceptions that cycling in an urban area is a risky enterprise are dealt with successfully, chances are that bike-sharing programs may never grow beyond a small niche service. They will fail to realize their full potential,” he concludes. Certainly well thought and delivered opinions that ought to get any cycling enthusiast’s wheels turning.