Bike share a game changer?

Melbourne's bike share in Australia, along with Brisbane's nearby, is one of the only such programs in the world that requires helmets. Critics say its numbers of users have been low as a result.

By Patrick Kelleher-Calnan

According to Boston bike czar Nicole Freedman, bike share will “take us to the next level” in the quest to turn Boston into a world-class cycling city. Freedman has said bike share would allow users to rent bikes by the hour from stations around the city for a low fee and thus “mainstream” cycling by increasing bike traffic and bringing new riders onto the road. Bike share programs like the one planned for Boston are growing quite popular in Europe, but for the most part are still proving their worth in the cities of the United States.

Though in an interview with the Union Rider Freedman said the city is still “very much in process,” she was able to describe the plan for the initial rollout as it now stands. Boston’s bike share is expected to start with approximately 600 bikes docked at 60 stations, spaced 300-400 yards apart. The city would like to see the program piloted in 2011, but Freedman emphasized that a delayed implementation is preferable to a haphazard one. In order to maintain a certain density, stations will initially be limited to Downtown, the Back Bay, the Fenway, the Longwood Medical Area, and parts of Allston and Roxbury. The ultimate goal is to expand over time, turning into a regional initiative that would include Somerville, Cambridge, and Brookline. Brookline’s intention to join the effort was highlighted earlier this month.

The best way to predict the effect of bike share on Boston may be to look at the experience of cities with established or new programs. Sebastian Bührmann, a consultant who has studied bike share in Europe as part of a New and Innovative Concepts for Helping European transport Sustainability (NICHES) commission on innovative transportation policy, points out that bike share programs vastly increase the number of trips taken by bike. He wrote in 2008 that public bikes in Barcelona were being rented up to 15 times per day each, and 75,000-140,000 trips a day were taken on the 20,600 bikes of the Vélib’ program in Paris. According to the NICHES commission, “within the first six months… 2 million trips were taken with the Public Bicycles.”

Andrew Curran, a Canadian transportation planner who has studied several European bike share systems, found that only a small fraction of these trips (6-10%) would otherwise have been made by car.

The effect of bike share on mode share (the percent of all trips taken by bicycle), is a little harder to gauge, since most cities that implement bike share are improving cycling facilities simultaneously. Noting this challenge, an article published in Preventive Medicine found that cities in Europe with successful bike share systems saw bicycle mode share increasing from as low as 0.5 percent to as high as 2 percent. NICHES reports that bike share in Lyon increased 44 percent after a year with bike share. Two percent is still a small fraction of total trips, but doubling or quadrupling mode share over several years is an impressive accomplishment for any city.

Chris Holben manages the Capital Bikeshare program (CaBi, as the locals call it) for the Washington DC Department of Transportation. The program consists of 105 stations and 1,100 bikes in the DC area. Holben said that, since launching in September, 169,000 trips have been made on CaBi bikes (1-1.5 trips per bike per day), mostly by CaBi’s 5,500 annual members. The average trip takes 12 minutes, and covers a little over a mile. Holben expects the number of trips to jump as the weather comes around: “We have had 1,200 day users, which is pretty low compared to cities that launched in the summer… We haven’t captured the day-use market yet.”

Freedman said that with bike share we should, “expect a dramatic shift in the number of cyclists, and a dramatic shift in the type of cyclist,” in Boston. According to the experts, she is probably making an accurate prediction. Bührmann has called bike share a “door opener.”

“The big advantage of public bicycle systems,” he said, “is that you have the chance to get a critical mass of people on the bikes, which will lead to a higher awareness of cyclists in the city.”

Shane Farthing, Executive Director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, echoes the sentiment, saying “Bike share gets people who aren’t hardcore cyclists to think about bikes as transportation. Once people try [CaBi], they’re often hooked.”

Paul DeMaio, who founded the bike share consultancy Metro Bike LLC and works with CaBi program, agreed. “The demographics skew young (25-40 yrs), male, and white, as would be expected,” he said, “but [bike share] is being used by a variety of ages and races.”

DeMaio also pointed to this survey of Nice Ride Minnesota users, which, though not a scientific survey, suggests a significant number of users do not own a bike. Paris’s Vélib’ bike share program also reported in 2008 that 42 percent of its users were women, and 94 percent of users were happy or very happy with the service. Holben said that, “anecdotally, there are a number of new cyclists that are very excited.”

If the pattern holds true for Boston, successfully implementing bike share in the city could cause a small to negligible decrease in car traffic, a significant spike in bike traffic, and changes in how people use the T. The population of urban riders could also change with an influx of new and occasional cyclists. Secondary effects –- such as an increase in bike trips taken on privately owned bikes, or an increase in demand for bicycle infrastructure –- could also be significant. Freedman argues these changes will be “transformative” for Boston.

“I do see it as a game changer,” agreed Holben, citing the greater number of bikes on the road and the visual impact of CaBi’s bright red bikes. “I think cars see them more because they’re unique… Once the spring season hits they’re going to be everywhere.”

“The mayor wouldn’t pursue bike share if he wasn’t confident it could be a tremendous success,” said Freedman.

But what obstacles will the program face, and can it work here? The experts I talked to agreed with the NICHES commission: “A minimum standard of bicycle infrastructure for safe and convenient cycling” is a necessary precondition to bike share.

“We have enough to start,” said Steve Miller, co-founder of Boston’s Hub on Wheels and director of the Healthy Weight Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health. “If done well, bike share will put a lot more people on bikes, and that alone changes the politics and the culture of the city.” Miller also emphasized that the city will have to continue its commitment to improving infrastructure.

Helmets also pose a tricky obstacle for bike share programs. They are not quite feasible to rent with the bikes because of size differences and other intricacies, and requiring them can keep users away, as is the case in Melbourne Australia’s less than successful bike share scheme which is now projected to cost that city millions for subsidized helmets.

“It’s a concern that we have,” said Holben. CaBi has tried to address this challenge through education and working with local shops to offer users a discount on helmets. This strategy seems to be working. “We haven’t had a lot of blowback on it.”

The City of Boston is considering a wide range of solutions, from making helmets readily available at a variety of retailers close to the stands or hiring youth to offer them nearby, on up to making them a requirement for bike share riders or creating an Australian-style helmet law for all cyclists—legislation that would certainly have its share of controversy due to a handful studies that point to the negative effect on ridership resulting from similar laws. Currently Massachusetts’ mandatory helmet law applies only to riders 16 and under.

All in all hopes are running high for bike share however. The benefits Boston has as a cycling city are often listed: relatively flat, mostly compact, the weather isn’t that bad, and though the streets are narrow, their organic “cow path” layout means there are direct routes from almost any point A to any point B. By introducing rental bikes as a cheap and convenient way to get around, bike share could generate thousands of extra bike trips a year.

“It’s impressive that the city is taking this significant step,” said Miller. “They deserve our support and help.”

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