Bikes and Business: Can Cities Cycle Their Way To Prosperity?

3/16/12Follow @wroush

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any Hubway station. A flashing green light confirms that a bike is firmly locked back into the dock.

Pricing for the system is pretty simple: Casual users can pay $5 for a 24-pass entitling them to an unlimited number of 30-minute trips, or $12 for a 72-hour pass. Members pay $85 for a one-year pass.

After the first 30 minutes, which are free in every plan, the fees start to go up for people who want to rent on an hourly basis. Users pay $2 for the second half-hour of a bike rental, $6 for the third half-hour, and $8 for each additional half-hour, up to a maximum of $100 per day. The point is to encourage users to return the bikes quickly, so that others can use them. “It’s not intended for the tourist bike rental market of people who ride around all day,” says Robertson. “It’s for point-to-point trips.”

The Metropolitan Area Planning Commission is working with the cities of Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville to set up Hubway stations in those cities as well. That’s a vital step, since Boston proper has a relatively small footprint that is tightly connected with surrounding communities. “Everybody knew from the beginning that a bike-share system that was only in Boston and not Cambridge and Somerville and Brookline would not be useful,” says Robertson. “It will be one unified system. You’ll be able to pick up a bike in Boston and drop it off in Cambridge, et cetera.” The stations outside Boston will likely be installed over the summer, Robertson says.

A curious Bostonian examines Hubway's Charles Circle docking station

One goal behind all bike-sharing programs is to give a convenient option to city-dwellers who are willing to brave traffic on a bike, but may not have a place to store one at home or at work. “Across the world, we have seen that bike sharing has the potential to just immediately, overnight, reach people who aren’t already biking and turn it from a niche transportation option into an actual, mainstream transportation option,” Robertson says. “In Boston, we have come a long way in the last few years. We went from being a repeat winner of Bicycling magazine’s ‘worst bike city in America’ to being awarded a silver medal from American Bicycles.”

But even Boston is still just beginning to catch up with the European cities where bike-sharing has really taken off. In countries like the Netherlands, where governments have aggressively realigned bike lanes to create more separation between automobile and bicycle traffic, 30 percent of trips nationwide and 50 percent of short urban trips are by bike, Robertson says. American cities such as Portland have been able to get 7 to 10 percent of commuters onto bikes with conventional bike accommodations such as painted lanes, but “it takes the next level of infrastructure—physical separation from traffic, separate bike signals, et cetera—to get beyond 10 percent, and we haven’t done that yet in the U.S.,” she says.

It may be even harder to raise the percentages on the San Francisco Peninsula, where the main employment and residential hubs are strung out along the 40-mile Highway 101 corridor that runs between San Francisco and San Jose. The Bay Area Air Quality Management Board’s plan calls for clusters of bike rental stations around major Caltrain stops, which could make it easier for San Franciscans who work in Silicon Valley to take the train most of the way, then use a public bike for the “last mile.” But whether there could ever be enough bikes to put a big dent in car usage is an open question. “I’m not sure if Boston or D.C. or San Francisco will ever get to the kind of density [of bike-sharing stations] they have in Paris,” says Robertson. “U.S. cities are just not willing to fund it as if it’s public transit. They’re all doing it with grants and sponsorship and things of that nature.”

That’s why Boston’s system is called the New Balance Hubway. So, heads up Silicon Valley: How about coughing up a little cash for the Google Bayway? The Cisco Cycleway? Facebike? Your employees—and the people competing with them on the freeways—will thank you for it.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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