Paradise on wheels

The recent Times article on the bike-sharing boom in Europe offers up lots of good stuff.

> For mayors looking to ease congestion and prove their environmental bona fides, bike-sharing has provided a simple solution: for the price of a bus, they invest in a fleet of bicycles, avoiding years of construction and approvals required for a subway. For riders, joining means cut-rate transportation and a chance to contribute to the planet’s well-being.

> The new systems are successful in part because they blanket cities with huge numbers of available bikes, but the real linchpin is technology. Aided by electronic cards and computerized bike stands, riders can pick up and drop off bicycles in seconds at hundreds of locations, their payments deducted from bank accounts.

One quibble, though: the article strains a bit to view these programs through an environmental lens that isn’t really necessary or sufficient to explain their success. Bike-sharing programs are good for the environment, but they’re also good for cities and for citizens and for economies. Europeans may or may not be “increasingly green-conscious,” but no doubt they are making transportation decisions based on the same criteria they always have: cost and convenience.

> Here in Barcelona, streets during rush hour are lined with commuters and errand-goers on the bright red bicycles of Bicing, the city’s program, which began 18 months ago. Bicing offers 6,000 bicycles from 375 stands, which are scattered every few blocks; the bikes seem to be in constant motion.

> “I use it every day to commute; everyone uses it,” said Andre Borao, 44, an entrepreneur in a gray suit with an orange tie, as he prepared to ride home for lunch. “It’s convenient, and I like the perspective of moving through the streets.”

The story of the bike-sharing boom is one of new technology and new infrastructure investment unlocking huge demand for a mode of transportation that just happens to be great for the environment.

It’s not surprising that people respond readily to changes in their built environments, and it is good news that a significant chunk of the population has a latent preference for bicycle-riding, once enough barriers have been cleared away. The message for transportation planners more generally is that, green-conscious or no, a meaningful proportion of people will shift from their cars when given the chance.

The article further notes that “the impact of bike-sharing on traffic or emissions is difficult to quantify.” This is true, and in fact the direct reductions in carbon emissions are probably modest. But they are real, just as are other, less readily quantifiable benefits:

> “The critical mass of bikes on the road has pacified traffic,” said Gilles Vesco, vice mayor in charge of the program in Lyon. “Now, the street belongs to everybody and needs to be better shared. It has become a more convivial public space.”

In other bike-sharing news, Time Magazine recently named Montreal’s bike sharing program one of the best inventions of 2008. The system cleverly employs web-enabled, solar-powered bike stations that can be set up with a minimum of fuss. If the program can succeed in chilly Canada, look for it to spread south.

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  1. Sharon - November 19, 2008

    I live in Green Bay, Wisconsin. They are trying out public bikes here, but not with much success. The bikes come from a pool of bikes that had been stolen, but couldn’t be returned to the owners. So, there was no cost to the city except to paint them a screaming green color to set them apart from the other bikes in town.
    The problem has been that they were only put in a small downtown area and they are borrowed using the honor system. Not surprisingly, most of them were stolen. There have been many complaints that it is a waste of time.
    The mayor’s office plans on trying out the program again next summer- hopefully with more research this time into how it has been done successfully in other cities.

  2. Rhea - November 19, 2008

    On a smaller scale, Emory University in Atlanta has a “Bike Emory” campaign in its second year. They designed a bike using input from students, faculty, and other employees and offer it at a discounted price to encourage commuting by bike. There are also bikes on campus that are available for sharing for free for people who live too far to commute by bike. This way they still have access to another mode of transportation once they are on campus – great for going to lunch or other errands nearby. It seems that if small programs like this are successful and gain media attention, larger-scale, city-wide programs could be implemented.

  3. AA - November 19, 2008

    Washington, DC has a bike-sharing program. There is a SmartBike station right outside of my office and outside a bunch of other downtown Metro stations.

  4. Rachel - November 19, 2008

    I was just in San Sebastan, Spain in October. I noticed that they had a city bike share program like the one described in the article. It seemed to be popular, because there were always bikes out and about. We had our own bikes to ride, so didn’t use the system. The city also has a nice system of bike paths, either designated pathways on the side of streets, or on sidewalks. It worked for us!

  5. John K. - November 19, 2008

    Just like AA, I also work in DC and I signed up for the SmartBike program. For $40 for the year, I have unlimited access to the bikes. The system (card access, just like Europe) is very easy to use, and has real-time web information on how many bikes are at each location. I love the idea, but use it infrequently because DC needs more stands. Right now, the bikes are located only at train stations. Since you can only have a bike for 3 hours at a time, you have to use them only for short trips/errands or else return to the stand to check out another bike.

  6. Mommy2Twinkies - November 20, 2008

    Perhaps not relevant, sorry, but because I get emails from you, I blogged about your Climate Change Chocolate the other day. I thought it was such a nice idea for stocking stuffers and small Christmas gifts. Thanks!

  7. shatto - November 27, 2008

    Interesting that; all over the world, we are being given so many choices to help save the planet.
    Unsettling that; all over the world, more and more, the choices are selections only of what the environmentalists want.

  8. Melissa M. - November 29, 2008

    Your comment implies that you think a bike-sharing program is a bad idea. Do you have another suggestion?
    Maybe the reason “the choices are selections only of what the environmentalists want” is that “the environmentalists” have been thinking about these problems and projects to help combat them for years already. The benefit of that is the projects usually don’t involve things that are totally revolutionary and therefore difficult for the rest of the public to identify with and adopt into their daily routine.

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