Amidst all the bike share discussion in NYC at the moment, I thought I’d post the ‘director’s cut’ of a (very) short article on the subject of bike sharing I have in the current Outside, written of course before yesterday’s (expected) announcement of the program, to be run by Alta.
Faster than you can say “feasibility study,” bike share programs have been popping up in American cities large and small. And we’re not just talking the usual coastal metropoles: Sure, places like D.C. (100,000 trips in its first seven months) and Montreal (3.3 million trips in 10 months) have popular bike share programs, but so too do San Antonio, Des Moines, and, very soon, Chattanooga, Tennessee. By this time next year, New York and San Francisco should be on board. Proponents, with an intensity approaching Springfield’s mania for the Monorail, see bike shares as not only a valid mode of sustainable transportation but a veritable economic development tool, while the less enamored see them as a trendy, taxpayer-supported vanity project taking up valuable parking space.
But what makes for a successful bike share program? The first, and rather obvious, rule of thumb is that the more bike friendly a place is — the more lanes, the more fellow cyclists — the better bike sharing will be received. But bike sharing in turn makes the city more bike friendly; in the French city of Lyon, for example, more than 90% of people had never biked in the city center prior to bike sharing.
And lest you think bike share seems redundant in an already bike friendly city like Minneapolis, close to 80% of riders on its “Nice Ride” system already own a bike.
But you don’t have to be Portland to have a bike share, argues Alison Cohen, who heads Alta Bike Share, the company that runs the programs in D.C., Boston, and elsewhere. No one ever thinks they’re ready. “We went to Melbourne, Australia, and we were floored by the number of lanes,” she says. “And they were like, ‘how will address the fact that there are no lanes?’ We said, ‘you should see Dallas.’ ” What matters, she says, is political will (and funds). When Boston started looking into bike sharing a few years ago, it had 180 feet of bike lanes — by the time it introduced it, it was up to 38 miles. New York, she notes, delayed its request-for-proposals for a year as it firmed up its bike infrastructure.
This points to another no-brainer: Bikes need to be where people want to go, whether it’s transit hubs or tourist hotspots (a common theme in failed “first generation” bike share programs, often halfheartedly promoted by advertising companies, is that they started too small to be seen as useful).
Then there’s the nitty-gritty details, like capacity. “It’s all about the docks,” says Cohen, who says a two-to-one bike-to-dock ratio is ideal. But in crowded cities, finding space downtown to accommodate the morning flow is a challenge (in D.C, users complained when a Groupon promotion brought thousands of new users online). A related issue is distribution — how do you spread bikes throughout the system if users aren’t doing it themselves? Bike-carrying trucks is the brute force solution. But herein lies another problem. “The time when you need the trucks to be most mobile, when the trucks are getting filled up, is rush hour,” Cohen says.
Lastly, as with any consumer transaction, user experience is key, from payment to pricing to pedals. Anything that stands between the rider and a potential ride will dampen the program. Where D.C.’s bikes average five rides a day, notes Cohen, in Melbourne, they get just one. The primary reason? A mandatory helmet law. For various reasons (including hygiene), no bike share system in the world provides a helmet. Nor should they, some would argue. But Cohen feels the market may provide a solution — and indeed, a London-based designer, Anirudha Rao, has already crafted the prototype Kranium, an inexpensive, custom-made cardboard helmet which he envisions could be sold in vending machines (replete with 3-d scanners and printers) at bike share stations.