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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.