June 18, 2008

Next-gen bike sharing comes to the U.S., in Washington

Washington, D.C. is launching what Time magazine calls "America's first high-tech bike-sharing program," featuring "key-card locking systems and tracking devices to prevent theft."

The idea is inspired by popular bike-sharing programs abroad, especially Paris's Vélib. Notes Time:
"Although places like Copenhagen, Lyons and Barcelona are big on bike-sharing, the City of Lights boasts the crème de la crème, with 20,600 bikes and about 1,450 stations--four times the number of Parisian metro stops. It's hard to walk more than two blocks without running into a bike rack, which helps explain why the program has already yielded a 5% drop in car traffic. Paris has also removed lots of parking spots to make way for bike stations.

But making things convenient for riders is a major production. Some 400 people work full-time to ensure that the Vélib program runs smoothly. Every day trucks have to move bikes around to meet rush-hour demands, and a barge along the Seine serves as a floating bike-repair shop. "

Not surprisingly, America's first effort is very much more modest, with just 120 bicycles and 10 stations. However, city officials know that will need to scale up considerably in order for the program to be a serious commuting alternative.

In Paris, the effort is quite serious. "We conceived of this as a public-transportation system, so it operates as one," Bernard Parisot, head of the company running Vélib, told Time. In contrast, most U.S. communities view cycling as a hobby indulged in by a few, and not a key mode of transport on par with autos or even subways. Then again, most U.S. communities view walking as an optional activity, not an important mode of transport, as evidenced by lack of snow clearing in winter, not to mention roadways actively hostile to people walking from place to place (case in point: it's all but impossible for me to walk from my office to Shoppers World, less than a mile away, because of dangerous intersections and lack of sidewalks).

A few cities, though, are taking cycling seriously for transportation, such as Portland, Minneapolis and Denver, Time notes. "For bikes to become a mainstay of the morning rush, cities need to spend time and money expanding bike fleets and making streets safer for two-wheelers. That means creating dedicated bike lanes and ticketing cars that double-park in them."

Perhaps soaring gasoline prices may finally create more pressure for municipal officials to take cycling, walking and mass transit more seriously as alternatives to the private automobile.

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