What could 10,000 shared bikes do for the Bay Area?
Say you’re on the southern edge of the Cal campus at Bancroft and College Avenue and you want to go to Cactus Taqueria at the other end of College. That’s more than two miles away—perhaps too far for a comfortable walk. Depending on the hour, driving could be slow and parking tough in Rockridge. Taking a bus would probably mean a wait. And BART would be a ridiculous option.
Now imagine finding a bike in your immediate vicinity, a bike that’s available for little to no money. You use it to zip down the flat avenue, passing scads of idling cars, and deposit it at the Rockridge BART station near the restaurant. After the burrito—still glowing with the knowledge that you aren’t hastening the demise of the planet—you catch your train home.
In European cities, many people already enjoy this luxury. Paris, Barcelona, Lyon, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and other metropolitan areas boast successful bike-sharing programs. Paris launched its Vélib’ (short for vélo liberté, “bicycle freedom”) program in July 2007, and during the recent transit strike in that city, the use of 10,000 shared bikes soared, with demand exceeding supply. New York City created a successful model program last summer, and college campuses from the University of Washington to the University of Wisconsin, Madison have done the same. Plans for bike-sharing systems are on the way in the nation’s capital and possibly in Chicago and Arlington, Virginia.
Bay Area residents fancy themselves trendsetters when it comes to the environment, technology, progressive politics, cuisine and the arts. Car-sharing has already taken off here. We’ve got lively bicycle advocates and a 15-year-old Critical Mass movement. Gas is pushing $4 a gallon. So just where are our communal bikes?
We are finding some pedal to the metal on this concept in San Francisco. A few years ago, while visiting Lyon, France, Mayor Gavin Newsom learned about bike-sharing and has since wanted to import such a program to San Francisco. “We’re very intrigued by bike-sharing from the mayor on down,” says Wade Crowfoot, who has served as Newsom’s deputy chief of staff and has just become the mayor’s director of climate protection initiatives. “It’s a huge priority for the mayor. He bugs us about it all the time.”
A proponent of many green initiatives, Newsom likes the environmental and health benefits of bike-sharing, as well as its innovative and technological aspects. GPS chips installed in the bikes make them easy to locate, which deters theft. Moreover, swipe-able cards, coins or even cell phones enable people to check out the bikes. In some cases, subscription cards connect to users’ credit cards or bank accounts.
San Francisco signed a 20-year contract with Clear Channel Outdoor last September to replace all 1,200 of San Francisco’s bus shelters and to add bike-sharing facilities to at least a quarter of them. “The contractor committed to doing this as part of [the company’s] contract,” says Crowfoot. “So unless there’s some technical infeasibility, I think it’s going to happen.” The new bus shelters are being designed right now and are due to be installed in the next two years.
Local bike advocates view San Francisco as the logical place to launch bike-sharing in the Bay Area. The city is small enough that one can travel from Point A to Point B on a bike, never needing to incorporate other forms of transit into the trip. The high population density means that large numbers of people already rely on public transportation, so they would be more apt to use bike-sharing than, say, Marin residents.
But what of the East Bay? At first glance, bike-sharing seems challenging in a region stretching from the Carquinez Bridge down to Fremont and out to Pittsburg. But East Bay bike advocates argue that combining bike-sharing with other forms of public transit would work beautifully here.
Robert Raburn, executive director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, says if your destination is 30 miles away, you might find it daunting to travel by bike. But if the destination is just two miles from a transit station, then you’re well within biking range after hopping off BART or a bus. And if amply stocked bike-sharing stations existed at transit hubs and ideally every few blocks, the East Bay could live up to its progressive reputation.
According to Cisco DeVries, chief of staff to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, the city is very interested in exploring bike-sharing or bike-rental systems. He says the fairly small size of Berkeley and the existence of a campus community could make the concept a good fit, though the city has no firm plans yet.
Berkeley officials, he says, are working to meet the requirements of Measure G, a ballot measure that local voters overwhelmingly approved in November 2006. The measure requires an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gases throughout Berkeley by 2050. Emissions from cars and trucks account for 47 percent of all emissions in the city, says DeVries, so municipal leaders want to do everything they can to increase bike usage. “Because we do have a city that you can get around in, in large part, on a bicycle, we’d like to make that a viable and fairly easy method of transportation,” he says.
DeVries cites car-sharing as a model for how the city might work cooperatively with nonprofits or with private organizations to make bike-sharing a reality in Berkeley. The city has helped find free or cheap spaces for fleets of shared cars, he says. “I’m not opposed to the city itself creating the bicycle-sharing system. But I think that partnering with existing or new organizations is in many ways better, especially for a city like ours. And once you partner, like with car-share, it doesn’t just have to be in Berkeley. In fact, people who live in Berkeley often work in Oakland or San Francisco. Or vice versa. There are a lot of reasons why having a Bay Area–wide or multiregional effort is actually more effective.”
In coming years, cities everywhere will likely face a population surge, and bike-sharing advocates argue that municipalities need to make plans now to beef up transit systems.
The three biggest “street furniture” companies (those who supply bus shelters and public bathrooms) are JCDecaux, Clear Channel and Cemusa. These companies contract with municipal governments in Europe and the United States, and while the arrangements vary, the companies generally supply bike stations and bicycles, as well as the technology involved in paying for bike usage, checking bikes out and locking them up again. In exchange, the company plasters the city with ads, which tend to appear on the street furniture and on the bikes themselves. Opponents liken such deals to dancing with the devil, lamenting that the ads will constitute visual pollution. Even advocates acknowledge that the ubiquitous advertising may assault the sensibilities.
But with private enterprise (rather than government bureaucracy) as the engine behind such initiatives, change can occur quickly, advocates note. Cost estimates run approximately $8,000 per bike from manufacturing to maintenance to installation for a decade.
Last summer, New York City launched a popular 5-day, bike-sharing pilot program that hooked residents and inspired organizers. Loreal Monroe, deputy director of the Forum for Urban Design in Manhattan, argues that because a bike-sharing system would be so cost-effective, the New York City government ought to go all out in funding it: “Why dedicate a couple thousand to a few bikes, just to see them fail essentially? Why not give a couple million, have bikes all over the city, and start this campaign? It’s not a matter of eminent domain and buying property and building tunnels. It’s putting bike stations and bikes on the street. Why not start big? Why not make a huge splash?” She acknowledges that New York has an excellent public transportation system but believes that it doesn’t reach enough people. Shared bikes in New York City, she says, could bring virtually everyone into the transit grid.
Unlike in New York, public transportation in the Bay Area has enormous holes in coverage, and advocates say bike-sharing could reduce some of the transit frustrations that people face—including the problem of congestion.
Some argue that bike-sharing in San Francisco could alleviate traffic backups as far away as I-80 in Berkeley or Highway 101 on the peninsula, because many drivers on those stretches are headed for San Francisco. The program would enable commuters to BART into the city and then grab a bike to complete their journey.
Dedicated cyclist Matt Eghtessadi-Reed says he would definitely use a bike-sharing program. To make a difference in our petroleum-addicted society, he opts to bike or take public transit as often as possible. Every day, he travels 15 minutes by bike from his North Oakland home to the Berkeley architecture firm McCamant & Durrett, where he’s a project manager.
He says shared bikes in San Francisco would significantly improve his trips there to see friends, making public transportation “much more attractive.” He notes that after exiting BART in the city, he usually needs to take a cab (which is expensive) or must struggle to figure out MUNI routes to his destination.
“This would provide the flexibility to go places that aren’t part of the network,” he says of bike-sharing. “If I know that there’s a bike available, then I can just go and explore.”
Although he’d still use his own bike for his Oakland-to-Berkeley commute, Eghtessadi-Reed believes that the East Bay is a perfect place for a bike-sharing system. “The East Bay is a very bike-friendly area. Without taking big trips, people can get places. But at the same time, it’s not a tight-knit transit system that can get them right there. So bikes are a great asset, along with the transit.”
Many commuters do bring their own bikes on BART, but there are limitations. During peak commute hours, bikes aren’t allowed on crowded trains or in certain stations. Wheeling bikes onto BART is also a hassle, given the lack of space on board, as well as the inconvenience of lugging a bike through stations. (BART is currently working to improve bike storage on trains and to create stair ramps in stations. And Caltrain now offers free and secure bike parking for passengers at its San Francisco station.)
Transporting bikes on buses makes for its own problems. For example, Pinole resident Tom Immel faces significant challenges as he commutes each morning to Berkeley’s Space Sciences Lab, just off Grizzly Peak Boulevard. For financial and environmental reasons, he’s adamant about burning less gas, so he uses public transit as much as possible. He used to bike to BART, take BART to Berkeley, bike across Cal to a campus bus stop, and take a free bus up to the lab. But because the bike rack on the campus bus (like AC Transit buses) accommodates only two bikes, he found every morning that others had beaten him to the punch. Eventually, he started leaving his bike at home and instead uses one more bus to go from Pinole to the Del Norte BART station. He then walks from Berkeley BART to the Hearst Mining Circle to catch the campus bus.
While Immel’s story points out the holes in the Bay Area transportation system, it’s not clear that bike-sharing would solve his particular problem. Most likely, he wouldn’t use a shared bike to ride up the daunting hill to Grizzly Peak unless, he says, the city decided to rent out some electric bikes.
But Immel says he’d likely use shared bikes another way. On his way to and from work, near the downtown Berkeley BART, he runs errands and thinks it sure would be nice (and faster) to bike than walk.
“The nice thing is you’re not tied to a bike,” says Immel about the bike-sharing concept. “If I take my bike to work and there’s a downpour that afternoon, I have to get out of there with my bike somehow. I have to be equipped for the weather. If you’re bike-sharing, you can drop off the bike and not have to deal with really bad weather if you don’t want to.”
The good news for San Francisco and the East Bay is that other big metropolitan areas are out in front on these programs and have already worked out some of the kinks. For instance, bike-sharing administrators outside the Bay Area have found that they can prevent the stripping and vandalism of bikes by giving them a distinct look (like a neon color) and a generally odd appearance (such as ads on the hubcaps). No one would want to steal such a bike, and the parts wouldn’t fit conventional bikes anyway. The distinctive look also creates a sense of branding, generating recognition and excitement about an unusual product closely associated with the city’s identity. Crowfoot, Newsom’s climate protection director, says that in San Francisco, shared bikes will likely be an eye-catching yellow.
Crowfoot acknowledges the importance of creating incentives for responsible use. If users need to register online first, they’re bound to behave more responsibly once they check out the bikes. Advocates of bike-share systems generally agree that making users pay a nominal amount also encourages them to be responsible for the rented equipment. Past bike-sharing systems (including efforts in places like Portland, Ore. and Madison, Wisc.) apparently failed because the bikes were free. Users tended to damage or even steal the bikes.
In today’s bike-sharing systems, the ride may still be free; Copenhagen users obtain a bike by depositing a coin, which they get back at the end of the trip. Even when users have to pay for the rental, the fee remains quite low because advertising, rather than the rental, pays for the system.
Of course, the Bay Area presents some challenges that other municipalities haven’t had to surmount, like our distinctively hilly terrain.
To cope with steep hills, Europeans have devised visionary technology. A bike lift in Trondheim, Norway, for example, offers a solution for an incline as steep as Marin Avenue in the Berkeley Hills; a small, tilted piece of metal moves uphill in a track embedded in the road. The cyclist remains seated on the bike while placing one foot on the metal piece, which propels the bike and person uphill. This device exists on just one street, but 41 percent of its users claim that they cycle more often, now that it exists. Pedestrians (especially those with strollers) also enjoy the lift.
The Bay Area lacks not only these fancy touches but even the basic amenities that cyclists need in order to feel safe, say bike activists. They are working to create bike lanes (putting cyclists alongside cars on roads) and paths (putting cyclists in a separate, bike-only space, like the one just west of the Eastshore Freeway). But it does cyclists no good to enjoy a dedicated cycling space for a while if it ends abruptly, requiring them to merge into traffic.
That’s why San Francisco has planned a city-wide bike system, a network of bike routes and bike-only spaces. However, all improvements to the city’s bike infrastructure have come to a halt because two private citizens sued the city, citing an improper Environmental Impact Report for the plan in July 2005. Court injunctions in June and November 2006 froze all bike-related development until that lawsuit is resolved—possibly in mid-2009.
Yet another complication for the Bay Area has to do with jurisdiction. The New York City government spans all five boroughs, but the Bay Area consists of several cities, each with its own policy-makers. The plethora of governments has already prevented the region from taking a coherent stab at the public transit problem; each county makes autonomous decisions about extending BART lines. Whereas bike advocates in New York envision a system encompassing all five boroughs, San Francisco bikes would likely need to stay in San Francisco. Therefore, the East Bay and other parts of the region would need to devise their own systems.
Another barrier to bike-sharing here has cultural roots: Californians are loath to abandon their cars. Until recently, Raburn says, people perceived all bikes as children’s toys, not as viable modes of transportation. Then, too, shared property doesn’t appeal to everyone (though, Raburn notes, the resistance to shared property doesn’t carry over to cars, which people happily rent when need be).
Shared bikes also lack the cachet of heavy-duty mountain bikes or sleek titanium designs. Communally used bikes need to be inexpensive and low-maintenance, so they most likely won’t be 10-speeds. European shared bikes are often eminently practical, equipped with baskets, lights and fenders.
Monroe, from Manhattan’s Forum for Urban Design, cites one positive development for the green-minded Bay Area: buildings now receive LEED credit (in a U.S. Green Building Council system that rates the overall “greenness” of buildings) if they include showers because it encourages eco-friendly commuting. Such amenities have begun to proliferate. Without them, it’s difficult to imagine that professionals would bike to work in suits.
Monroe and David Haskell, who ran New York City’s recent bike-sharing experiment while serving as director of the Forum for Urban Design in Manhattan, have identified key factors in successful programs. Ideally, overseeing agencies will do the following:
1. Create abundant bike stations, locating them at transit hubs and in heavily traveled areas. Haskell says that in New York, “Bike stations should be on each avenue and on every four streets.”
2. Keep an ample supply of bikes at each station. Would-be users need to be reasonably confident that they can find available bikes.
3. Keep bikes in circulation by creating a price structure that rewards people for short trips. It does no good if people rent all available bikes and spirit them away for the day. The bikes should serve large portions of the population. To that end, the first half-hour could be free, with the price rising after that. “Bike-sharing is democratic transportation,” says Haskell, noting that in Lyon, 90 percent of trips clock in at less than 30 minutes and are therefore free to the user.
4. Educate drivers about bike lane laws, and then enforce those laws. “People don’t respect bike lanes, for the most part,” says Monroe, explaining that drivers park in them and delivery trucks idle in them.
5. Teach new bikers to heed red lights and to follow the rules of the road, just like cars.
Most important, bike advocates also note that society needs to shift its priorities dramatically, rejecting what Raburn calls the “add-a-lane mentality,” and starting to value bikes over cars. This may strike some as Pollyanna-ish, but advocates feel encouraged by the Parisian example. Since Mayor Bertrand Delanoë took office in 2001, the city has built almost 125 miles of bike paths. This has often been controversial, because it takes away car lanes. But according to Rachel Kraai, projects manager at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Paris has seen a huge surge in cycling. “His administration is showing the leadership that’s really needed to create safe, dedicated space,” says Kraai.
With relatively few improvements to its infrastructure, San Francisco has also seen an upswing in cycling in recent years. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority found that cycling in the city has risen 12 percent in the last year. A recent poll by David Binder Research (which conducts surveys for political campaigns, ballot measures and public interest groups, among other clients) showed that one-third of San Franciscans would bike more if there were more bike lanes and more dedicated spaces.
Environmental concerns and traffic congestion are increasingly on people’s minds here, as elsewhere. Those complex problems require complex solutions. But Sabrina Merlo, regional advocacy director for the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition, sees bike-sharing as an important piece of the answer: “It’s another way to help us with this problem of transportation and climate protection. Car-sharing, bike-sharing, pedestrian facilities, having transit be coordinated so it’s easy to shift from mode to mode—you need all these tiny silver bullets to build an infrastructure where people aren’t so car-dependent. You need a multitude of solutions, and bike-sharing is one part of it.”
In cities around the world, from progressive, bike-friendly Amsterdam to crowded metropolises such as New York City and Washington, D.C., people feel the same way as Merlo and have decided to give bike-sharing a spin—or have even made it a full-fledged reality. Car-sharing has proven to be a success and a boon in the Bay Area. Shared bikes criss-crossing the Bay Area could be the next eco-friendly step.
Eve Kushner is a frequent contributor to The Monthly. Read her work at www.evekushner.com.