Editor’s note: This piece originally ran on thisbigcity.net on June 24, 2011
Boston is a small city; you can walk from one official end to the other in under an hour at a brisk pace. Being small has its advantages. Most Bostonians can walk to work when the weather is nice when they have the will and public transportation tends to serve areas of dense employment pretty thoroughly. Lacking megalopolis status also means that Boston has a relative affinity for its bicycle-bound commuters and late this past April, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino made the push for bicycles to become a permanent part of Boston’s infrastructure landscape by initiating a bike-sharing program.
Bike sharing is a fledgling concept in the United States and has the tendency to be scattershot geographically. Chicago, Minneapolis, and Des Moines have programs in the Midwest while shares in Miami, Boston, and Washington, D.C. dot the coastlines. Two cities known for their high share of cycling commuters and typically progressive agendas, New York and San Francisco, are exploring their options. The most robust of these programs, Capital Bikeshare in Washington, has about 1,100 bikes and 114 stations distributed throughout the metro area, about one-fifth the size of Montreal’s Bixi (the largest in North America) and one-twentieth the size of Paris’ Vélib´.
The relative size of the American bike programs to their international counterparts has more to do with the lack of political and economic will to invest in a program that is seen as both detrimental to the car industry —still one of the most powerful lobbies in the US even post-bailout— and impractical due to the still burgeoning suburbs. America is, ostensibly, an urbanized country (82%) which should provide a population that would make wide use of bike shares, but the statistics are misleading as the geographic idiosyncrasies of American metro areas lead to demographics much more likely to use their cars than their bikes. Sunny and sprawling Phoenix, Arizona spans more than 500 square miles and every resident that resides within that plane is counted as an “urban” dweller.
That being said, bike sharing has been gaining momentum in major metropolitan areas in recent years and months, best exhibited by the Capital Bikeshare (C.B.). While there are cities with higher percentages of cycling commuters —Boulder, Colorado, an idyllic college town has one of the only double-digit modal share among U.S. metro areas— Washington, D.C.’s program is a model for other densely populated cities. Sam Kelly, a Peace Corps volunteer on his way to Namibia in August, took his first ride on C.B. Two weeks ago. “The two stations near to me were pleasant surprises,” he said in an interview last week, “and as I got towards the city center I started seeing more of them. The system seems like it’s working great.”
This is what a bike share program is all about. The demographics that won’t use bicycles for reasons personal and principled are staunch, but there is a large population that doesn’t use them because they lack access and the ancillary products of using bikes —storage, maintenance, practicality— are prohibitive for their lifestyles. The station method of sharing bikes solves those problems simultaneously: ease of storage is a keystone for bike sharing systems and that you never, in practice, own the bike means that taking care of them during inclement weather doesn’t fall on the rider.
New York City has the potential to take those concepts and scale them up to a size unseen on this side of the Atlantic. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a man the transportation community has a complicated relationship with, has been dangling a transformative bike sharing program in front of alternative transportation advocates since 2009 when New York’s city planners issued an “exhaustive proposal” that included a 10,000 strong fleet of safety-equipped, GPS-ready bikes. Economically, the deal is a victory for innovative financing because it fully absorbs the burden of maintenance, damage, and —as this is a city— theft, vandalism, and “artistic destruction.” New Yorkers would buy their memberships on weekly, monthly, or yearly bases and get an unlimited number of free rides that take less than 30 minutes; ride a little longer, pay a little more. New York has decided that an initial burst of capital will serve their purposes the best not least because of their uniqueness among American cities in terms of density and population.
Other cities have taken the incremental approach: Boston won’t crack the four-digit bike mark during its initial rollout but does intend to create a “proxy path” by placing its stations along a designated bike-way. San Francisco will ultimately be a successful program — even with its significant topographical challenges— because of its archetypically progressive population ready to take on whatever environmental mantle they can. And the Capital Bikeshare seems to have a positive trajectory based on its recent expansion and glowing reviews from riders. Bike sharing programs in the United States are young but ready to hit adolescence running not least because we seem to be progressive on transportation projects when presented with detailed proposals. Americans, while taking fierce independence as a sort of sovereign heirloom, are looking for ways to reconnect to their surroundings and have begun to crave community after decades spent in detached homes and detached neighborhoods. It’s amazing how a simple bike program may get us closer to both.