Smarter Sharing

Bike-sharing programs

Capital Bikeshare

Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C.     Photo: Brooks Kraft

These are heady times for fans of two-wheeled transport. Washington, D.C., and Montreal already have popular bike-share programs in place. So do San Antonio and Des Moines, Iowa. Coming soon: New York City, San Francisco, and Chattanooga.

The question is which of these programs will stick and which will turn out to be taxpayer-funded flops. Not surprisingly, it helps to start with a relatively bike-friendly city like Washington, D.C., whose program, Capital Bikeshare, boasted 1,100 bikes and 360,000 trips in its first seven months. The nation’s capital, which has expanded its bike lanes from three miles to fifty in the past decade, saw an 80 percent boost in ridership from 2007 to 2010.

It’s a model that Boston and New York—two cities considered challenging for ­bikers—have taken note of. Boston launched Hubway, with 600 bikes and 38 miles of lanes, in July, and New York was on track to roll out its program by spring 2012.

But bike shares do have their limiting factors. There’s the issue of ­capacity. “It’s all about the docks,” says ­Alison Cohen, president of Alta Bike Share, the company that owns the racking docks in D.C., Boston, and Melbourne, Australia. Finding space downtown to ­accommodate the morning flow is always tough. In New York, critics in tourist-heavy zones like SoHo worry about losing real estate on narrow sidewalks to bike-parking stations.

And then there’s the germ issue: for safety and hygiene reasons, no bike-share program rents helmets. Whereas D.C.’s bikes average five rides per day, notes Cohen, in Melbourne, Australia, they get just one. The primary reason: a ­mandatory helmet law. But ­Cohen feels the market could provide a solution. London-based designer Ani­­rudha Rao has already prototyped the Kranium, an inexpensive cardboard helmet that Rao envisions being sold in vending machines at bike-share stations.

The bottom line: make it easy and they will ride.

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