Cities of Bikes

Editor’s notes: Another in the occasional guest posts, here chapter1  from Daily Kos with an excellent discussion of urban bike sharing programs.

I’m going to tell you about a quick and easy-to-implement program that will reduce both oil use and city traffic, bring large benefits to public health, and get people where they need to go faster than before.

But I’m not going to tell you that it will have zero cost.

Instead, I’m going to tell you it will cost less than nothing.  It won’t add any new items to city budgets.  It may result in additional sources of revenue while reducing some city budget items.

The program is to introduce very cheap bicycle rentals located at kiosks around the city.  It will have the blessing of local government, but be run by a for-profit company.  After signing up online, you’ll unlock bikes with your credit card, ride to your destination, and lock them back up again.

The program has been implemented on a large scale in Lyon and Paris, and on a somewhat smaller scale in Vienna, Brussels and Cordoba.  The results are excellent so far, and similar programs are being considered by London and Seoul.

A few American cities are beginning to experiment with this.. but it is time for us to get serious.

How it works
If you have to go somewhere, you go to your local bike rack and swipe your credit card, which unlocks a bike.  You ride to your destination and lock the bike back up again.  If you get there in half an hour (which most people do), there are no additional fees (or perhaps a nominal one).  If it takes you longer, there is a small fee.  If the bike isn’t returned within 48 hours, you are essentially charged for the whole bike.

The largest program so far, called Velib,  began operation about a month ago in Paris.  Joining the program costs one Euro for a day or 29 Euros (~$40) for a year. 10,000 bikes are located at 750 points around the city; by the end of the year, there will be another 10,000 bikes located at another 700 places.  The program has proved extremely popular so far; three weeks after it began, over 616,000 people had signed up.  That’s 30% of the population of the city, and 5% of the metropolitan area.  

In exchange for advertising, a private company (JCDecaux) runs the entire system, and pays Paris for the privilege (emphasis mine).

JCDecaux will provide all of the bikes (at a cost of about $1,300 apiece) and build the pickup/drop-off stations. Each will have 15 to 40 high-tech racks connected to a centralized computer that can monitor each bike’s condition and location. Customers can buy a prepaid card or use a credit card at a computerized console to release a bike.

The company will pay start-up costs of about $115 million and employ the equivalent of about 285 people full time to operate the system and repair the bikes for 10 years. All revenue from the program will go to the city, and the company will also pay Paris a fee of about $4.3 million a year.

In exchange, Paris is giving the company exclusive control over 1,628 city-owned billboards, including the revenue from them, for the same period. About half the billboard space will be given back to the city at no cost for public-interest advertising.

The first city to try this on a large scale was Lyon (France’s second largest city) which launched Cyclocityin May, 2005, with 2000 bicycles at 175 locations.  The program has been highly successful; there are 16000 rentals per day, with each bike is used by “up to 15 people” each day.  The average trip is 17 minutes and 1.7 miles.  “It has completely transformed the landscape of Lyon; everywhere you see people on the bikes,” said Jean-Louis Touraine, the deputy mayor of Lyon.

JCDecaux has launched similar programs in Brussels, Vienna, Cordoba and Gijon (Spain).

Seoulplans to set up a similar program, with 200 bike stations and 5000 bikes.

London– famous for its Tube and taxis– wants to set up a similar program.

Paris, Lyon, Brussels, Vienna, Cordoba– and probably soon London and Seoul– have become true cities of bikes.

Some American cities are starting to experiment– the most advanced appears to be Portland, OR, which has proposed a Red Bike program with 500 bikes located around the city.  The city has put out an RFP, due Sept 17th, 2007.  Thisblog post says Chicago has put out an RFP as well, but I can’t find any other information.  And this article says that San Francisco is considering a micro-scale program, with 20 bicycling kiosks.


 title=This type of program brings numerous benefits.  These include:

Less oil used (thus less climate change, less money shipped overseas to questionable characters, less reliance on foreign oil).

Less local pollution  Cars are a major source of local pollution.

Healthier people  (Discussed at length below)

Less road work needed  Less people on the road, means less wear-and-tear on the road, which means less money spent to fix it.

More people able to use public transportation (Discussed at length below)

Save people money  Maintaining and operating a car is expensive.  The IRS estimates it costs about $.48/mile.  That can add up very quickly.  By contrast, here’s what one user said about the costs of the Lyon program: “Paquet said he uses the rental bikes four or five times a day and pays about $13 a year, half for an annual membership fee and half for rental credit that he never actually spends because his rides typically last just a few minutes.”

Save time Cyclists will benefit by having kiosks located a few minutes from their offices and homes, instead of having to wait for subways.  According to an aide to the mayor of Paris, A recent study analyzed different trips in the city “with a car, bike, taxi and walking, and the bikes were always the fastest.”

Less traffic The average New York commuter now spends 49 hours stuck in traffic every year, up from 18 hours in 1982.  Fewer cars on the road means less traffic.  

Get to know the city better Any cyclist knows that you see a lot more when you bike then when you drive.  You’re more likely to see a nice coffee shop or smell an Italian restaurant.

More people able to use car-sharing  By reducing people’s need to get around town by car, you reduce people’s need for a car.  This makes it more likely their remaining needs can be met by a car-sharing service, like ZipCar.

The sole cost to cities has been giving up advertising space.

Public health
This program will bring strong health benefits to all who participate.

As a 2005 Newsweek article noted, “The real secret to fitness is to live in an environment that encourages it.”  People who build exercise into their daily life tend to be healthier than those who do not.  Newsweek wrote

In a study published last year, scientists at the RAND Corp. scored 38 metropolitan areas on the “sprawl index”—basically a measure of their dependence on cars. When the researchers tallied disease rates for the same areas, an interesting pattern emerged. Other risk factors aside, people in densely populated places graced with sidewalks and shops had the lowest rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke. And the rates rose steadily as communities became more spread-out and less walkable. Statistically, a person living in Boston or San Francisco was healthier than an identical person in Atlanta or San Bernardino. Without even trying, the folks in those more-compact communities were apparently exercising enough to ward off chronic illness.

Bicycling burns at least as many calories per hour as walking (possibly more, depending on speed), which suggests that incorporating bicycling into every day life (such as commuting) is likely to have significant health benefits.

Obesity is a huge (and growing) problem in American life.  Many diseases (from heart disease to diabetes) are caused at least in part by obesity.  No matter what we do with our health care system– from keeping it as is to moving to a single-payer system overseen by nyceve (a man can dream) — reducing obesity will lower costs while making people healthier.

Bicycles as a supplement to public transportation
My local metropolitan area has a well-designed (by American standards) public transportation system.  But it still ain’t great.  For example, the commuter rail drops people off well out of walking distance (often 2-4 miles) from where they need to go.  And covering that distance by subway takes half an hour.  So people don’t take the commuter rail– they drive.

Many other people who are trying to get from point A to point B find that the easiest way to do so is to change trains at point Q, which adds 10 minutes waiting time.  The only way to get there with one train is to walk 20 minutes to the nearest train stop– or to bike.

Biking in city traffic??  Are you nuts??!
 title=A lot of people think cycling is more dangerous than driving, but its hard to find a definitive study confirming or refuting this.  The best analysis I’ve found is Ken Kifer’s (who is a cycling enthusiast, and may be biased).  I’ll summarize his major findings in this section, but you may want to read his original analysis.

Kifer analyzes government statistics on the number of miles cycled and the accident rate to compare cycling to driving and other day activities.  He finds that cycling is half as dangerous as driving, if one measures per hour of exposure, and twice as dangerous as driving if one measures per mile traveled.

Its actually not obvious which metric is better.  If a cyclist and a driver both go from point A to point B, the cyclist is more likely to take a shorter route than the driver.  So taking a bike generally leads to fewer miles traveled.

Furthermore, the cyclists most at risk are under 20.  People under age 20 are generally considered the worst drivers, too.  In fact, the ones under 16 or 17 or so are so bad, that we wouldn’t even think of letting them drive– its just too dangerous.  But we let them ride bikes.  And, all too often, they do something stupid on a bike– like turning in front of a car– and the result is often tragic.  

An adult who rides a bike finds it often brings out his inner child.  He does things he would never do while driving, like ignoring traffic laws or riding on the sidewalk.  That’s probably why among adults, the most common causes of accidents involve the cyclist doing something both stupid and illegal, like turning left in front of a car, passing a car on the right, traveling on the wrong side of the road or against traffic, or ignoring a stop sign or red light.  This is completely contrary to the common perception that drivers are at fault in most auto-bicycle accidents.  There is plenty of blame to go around.

In fact, among members of the League of American Cyclists (i.e., adults who ride like adults) the accident/injury/death rate per mile was far less than the comparable per-mile rates for driving.

So replacing automobiles with bicycles will probably not increase the accident/injury/death rate.  And if the cyclists ride like adults, these rates will go down.

So what are we waiting for?

Its time to follow the example of other cities, and create true cities of bikes.

Start with New York City?
New York is a very dense city that faces severe transportation problems and is in the process of revamping its transportation network.  It is considering charging for congestion pricing, and the US just recently offered $ 354 million to New York City alone if it does so– but apparently even that much isn’t enough.  So why not implement a program that will take drivers off of NY streets and cost little or nothing?

Cycling on NY streets will be too scary for some (just as driving is for out-of-towners)– but commuters can take advantage of geographical quirks.  In Manhattan, for example, a large number of bike kiosks could be located on the edges of Central Park, and all along the East and Harlem Rivers; people would walk a few blocks to the Park or River, and then bike most of the way to their destination.  As this catches on, you could add some more kiosks a block or two away from the Park/River.  Then another block, etc, etc.  Still more could be located nearby ferry terminals, to benefit coming from New Jersey.  

This solution would solve much the same problems that the congestion tax will, making it a nice complement to a congestion tax.  It could be implemented as part of NY’s program to reduce congestion.

Perhaps Energize America should consider proposing legislation to support bringing these programs to America.  Kossacks should also consider getting involved locally to promote.  If anyone is interested in pursuing this further (How can this be promoted with Federal-level legislation?  Would your city benefit from it?), please say so in the comments or drop me a line.

Also.. I’d love to hear comments from any kossacks a Paris, or other cities who have direct experience with this type of program.

  See A Siegel’s earlier diary, Energy COOL 4: Bike to the Future????

  Consider getting involved with Energize America

EDITORS NOTE:  See also Celsias’ excellent Paris Loves Bike Sharing; Portland Gets Closer.


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