No bike? No problem. Leave your metro card and your gas-guzzlers at home, and participate in DC’s Capital BikeShare, a regional rental system founded by the District and Arlington County in September 2010, which has recently burgeoned into a 1,200-bike, 140-station sharing network, and the largest in North America.
But DC’s bike share system is not news. In fact, recent findings on the rapid rise of bicycle users, which surged by more than 20% since its inception, attest to its widespread recognition (see Katie Roger’s article in The Washington Post). What is newsworthy, however, is the impact of bicycle sharing taking the United States by storm—investing and engaging in Smart Growth principles and green-friendly transportation. From Portland to New York, and in between cities such as Des Moines and Louisville, bicycle rentals have become urban high fashion across the country. But unlike many fads and trends, the hope is that bike shares do not coast away, but rather continue to grow and establish road riding best practices.
As the Capital BikeShare has proven its success in the number of riders and its cost-effectiveness, it has emerged as the American model of rental systems, and is at the forefront of the country’s transportation revolution. But the question still stands: can this model be used to service the rest of America? Is the country even ready for bike-friendliness? And finally, what is the future of urban life?
Progressive politicos, pundits and transit-geeks alike can agree that the major hallmark of an efficient bike-sharing program is to relieve commuting and environmental stress, done by reaching underserved destinations, requiring fewer infrastructures than other transportation modes, and lessening vehicular congestion and environmental impacts of our transit activities.
The suitability of such a bike program in the United States is based primarily on consumer demand, bike safety, infrastructure and intermodal connectivity.
Given these criteria, many American cities are ready for smart bike growth. Ridership has increased in recent years, resulting in a growing consumer demand for bike facilities. The Washington DC area, for example, has seen an 86% increase in residents bicycling to work from 2000 to 2009, double the U.S. growth rate, according to the U.S. Census Factfinder. While the United States does not have the quality and quantity of bike facilities currently existing in Europe, significant progress has been made over the past decade to make American cities and towns more bike friendly. An increase in the creation of bike facilities brings an increase in the number of riders. In turn, an increase in the number of riders brings an increase in the number of bike-share customers, according to The Atlantic Cities. Additionally, surveys conducted by French and Danish transit agencies suggest that potential smart bike costumers are likely to be younger individuals in their twenties and thirties, that age being even lower in university towns. Demographics and rider-likelihood enough can interpret demand in many cities.
In terms of safety, the lack of education and awareness in many American cities on the rules of urban bicycling prevent many from using bike sharing systems. John Pucher of Rutgers University states in Transportation Quarterly that, “the overwhelming evidence is that cycling is much safer and more popular precisely in those countries where bikeways, bike lanes, special intersection modifications, and priority traffic signals are the key to their bicycling policies.” The neglect of pedestrian and bicycle safety in America has thus made these modes seemingly dangerous. However, there is still hope. Mitigation to this issue is possible by the demand in many cities for safer bike facilities, and the receptiveness and response to remove as much risk as possible. Capitol BikeShare’s commitment to safety is evident both in their bikes’ design, with front and rear flashing LED lights, tire reflectors, and plastic casing around cables to prevent any tampering, and in providing bicycle classes, maps of regional bike lanes and routes, and a discount on helmets to their members.
Due to the benefit that comes with intermodal connectivity, bike-sharing programs tend to be located in downtown areas, where the compactness of urban development is ideal for many cyclists. It is helpful for riders to have bike stations near other transit points to improve access and mobility for all commuters. By providing strategically located transportation for transit customers, the modal transfer from the transit station to the bike happens smoothly, leaving no interim wait time between transfers, which can sometimes seem more arduous and time-consuming than the actual travel time would suggest. Conjoining transit and bike-share facilities affirms positive customer response and retention. You can find DC’s bike-share locations based on their proximity to popular visitor destinations, access to compatible modes of transportation such as Metro and bike paths, and connectivity to other Capital Bikeshare stations, five of which are on the National Mall to attract not only residents, but tourists. Biking, therefore, is a definite answer in this city.
So why not take this momentum coast to coast? The United States could adopt many of the measures taken by European counterparts to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety and sensitize American urban and regional landscapes to non-motorist, environmentally-friendly commuters. Examining characteristics of many American cities lead this writer to believe that implementing bike sharing in university campuses, bustling young urban neighborhoods and rural mega-regions connected to urban settings will provide Americans with a suitable and affordable mode of alternative transit that benefits the individual, the community, and the Earth.