Thursday, 22 September 2011

Bike sharing coming to New York?

I’m in New York City today, I’ve come home again for a baptism that was rescheduled due to last month’s hurricane.  It’s just a short trip for the weekend, so I’ve only brought a carry-on bag. Because I’m traveling light, I was able to take a bike to the train station this morning, which is always nicer than taking the tram.

I use the Brussels bike-share scheme every day actually, it’s quite nice to have in a city with not very comprehensive public transportation. It’s quite simple really. For €30 a year I can check out a bike from any the stations scattered around Brussels and return it to a different station at my destination. It’s free as long as I return it to another station within a half hour. If I want to take it out for longer, it’s €1 for every 30 minutes. It’s particularly nice because my apartment is downhill from my office, so I take the metro to work and check out a bike to coast home.

Today I’ve learned that New York is considering implementing a similar scheme. But will it work in New York as well as it’s worked in European cities?

The city with the most successful bike share scheme is undoubtedly Paris – a system that was modeled after an earlier successful program in Lyon. I used the Velib system when I was studying at the Sorbonne and it was a really nice way to get to class every day. The system is very widely used and popular with residents. 

This year London launched a bike-sharing scheme that seems like it could be on its way to similar levels of popularity. Dubbed “Boris bikes” after the London mayor who implemented the scheme, most of my friends in London who didn’t cycle before are now using them. Personally I find the 3 gears a bit limiting, and the front basket is too small to store a bag. But they work ok.

New York mayor Mike Bloomberg is considering starting a similar scheme. The New York City Bike Share would have an initial roll-out of 600 stations and 10,000 bikes and would go from the Upper East and West sides down to Battery Park in Manhattan. Some stations would also be located in Brooklyn, according to the New York Observer.

According to a recent survey 60% of New Yorkers such a scheme. Apparently there is some resistance from residents associations who are concerned about the amount of space the bike stations will take up. Space in New York is, of course, rather limited. There are also concerns over the fact that those spaces would be managed by a private for-profit company (as all the bike sharing schemes across the world are privately managed). The city would be essentially handing over public land to a private company.
Right now the New York transport department is surveying citizens to find out if they want such a program and how they would want it to work. Residents can indicate where they want to see a station on this map (apparently the answer is everywhere).
As the city consults, there are lessons to be learned from European cities. Bike sharing schemes have been very successful in some cities, but have been complete failures in others. The initial roll-out of the bike share scheme in Brussels was a disaster. Brussels is already not a very bike-friendly city, with a hilly topography, nightmarish traffic, dangerous tram tracks and unnecessary cobblestones on many streets. 

When they first rolled out the scheme they had only a few stations, so even if you checked out a bike you couldn’t go very far with it. The original bikes were also very heavy. Eventually the system was expanded and the bikes were changed. Brussels learned its lesson: you can’t roll out bike sharing on the cheap. And you also need to provide safe and efficient paths for the bikes to ride on.
London learned this lesson well and had a massive roll-out of stations right from the start. They also added many new cycle lanes throughout the city. New York says it would do this as well. Already 250 bike lanes have been added in the city since 2006.

Another risk to bike sharing schemes is security. I’ve already noticed a lot of bike stations in London with missing bikes that have been detached from the ports. Some cycle charing schemes have had to be abandoned because theft was so widespread. In 2001 Bratislava, Slovakia launched a bike sharing scheme but it had to be abandoned just three months later after most of the bikes were stolen or destroyed.

It will be interesting to see how New York emulates the European/Canadian bike sharing programs. As far as I know, no bike sharing scheme yet exists in the US. I’ve been a bit disappointed in the outcome of Bloomberg’s efforts to ‘Europeanize” the city and make it more pleasant. The “pedestrianization” of Times Square is a joke, all they’ve done is closed off a section fo Broadway to traffic and set up some cheap tables on the road. The High Line makes for a nice stroll, but if it were in any other city it would be pretty unremarkable. I can think of two dozen efforts to green ex-industrial waterfront projects in Europe that are much more interesting and ambitious.

Given that New York City drivers are very aggressive, I also don’t know if I would feel safe cycling through the city. I guess I’ll find out once I try out the first bikes. In the mean time, it’s still the subway for me!


Greg Temps said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Temps said...

Some corrections: It's not "some stations" that will be located in Brooklyn - northwest Brooklyn is part of the initial service area.

"Some stations" will however be located in the other three boroughs as satellite systems.

There are currently many bike-sharing schemes in the US: Boston, Washington DC, Denver, Madison, Miami Beach and Minneapolis all currently have systems.

Also, nitpicking: 250 miles of bike lanes have been added, not 250 bike lanes.

I love your blog, but it seemed like you didn't do a basic wikipedia search on this one.