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|Written by Sabrina Bowman|
|Wednesday, 12 August 2009 00:00|
Is there anything more pleasant than hopping on a bicycle and taking a long, leisurely pedal along sun-dappled, scenic paths? Can you ever feel so free as when you are cycling, laughing carelessly at the log-jammed rush hour traffic as you speed by, propelled only by your own muscles? Do you smile in satisfaction that moving yourself on two wheels requires no deep-down digging for Albertan carbon-soaked sands, but only the occasional solid meal and a good amount of clean tap water?
There is a mounting recognition that cycling is a cheap, eco-friendly and easy way to get around, which has led to its revival as not just a leisure activity, but as a serious commuting option. As a result, cities are beginning to invest more money in cycling infrastructure. Most notable is the burgeoning investment in bike share programs.
Though bike share programs were launching in the Netherlands and the United States as early as the 70's, these community-run, free bike share programs were often plagued by theft or the inability to recoup costs. Since then however, a new generation of technologically-administered and increasingly popular bike share programs has emerged.
Europe has been on the forefront of these new bike share programs, with dozens of cities jumping on board. An article in last year's New York Times stated that "[I]n increasingly green-conscious Europe, there are said to be only two kinds of mayors: those who have a bicycle-sharing program and those who want one." Barcelona, Paris and Lyon have all had marked success in this realm, and Copenhagen, one of the first cities to launch a more modern bike share program in 1995, is world-famous for their extensive bike networks. One tourist recently told me that during rush hour, there are bike traffic jams 2-3 blocks long.
Montreal's program is likely the newest and most well-known of the North American bike share programs. As part of their transportation strategy, the city committed to investing millions of dollars in bike infrastructure (such as separated bike lanes and bike right of ways), as well as $15 million in the Bixi bike share system. Bixi (a combination of the words bicycle and taxi) launched on May 12 of this year, with 300 stations containing a total of over 3000 bikes. The program will run in the spring, summer and fall (Montreal's harsh winters would likely damage the bikes). It has become a pinnacle for bike share programs in Canada and has received recognition worldwide.
The City of Ottawa is following in Montreal's footsteps by launching a pilot project in conjunction with the National Capital Commission and the Ville de Gatineau, which features four docking stations and fifty bikes. While the program so far has seen some moderate use, there is some doubt of success due to the small scale of the pilot (the majority of programs are widespread and have thousands of bikes). Despite this, even the adoption of a pilot project in Ottawa is indicative of the growth of bike share programs both within Canada and globally.
Most of these programs follow the same general rules for use: at each station, bikes are rentable by credit card, and can be taken out for a maximum of 24 hours. Often the first half-hour is free, after which a fee is charged for every additional 30 minutes. Once done with the bike, the user returns it to the closest station. Between errands, there's no need for a lock because the stations are generally scattered closely throughout the city, so the user can dock the bike and sign up a new one for their next trip. Longer-term users can get monthly or yearly subscriptions. If the bike is not returned after a set period, the credit card is charged a substantial fee.
These programs offer several advantages. They are relatively easy to use, the frequency of station locations makes them extremely convenient, and the penalty for losing or stealing a bike is significant enough to deter some theft. They are a boon for tourists on a budget, as they offer a cheap alternative to renting a car or taking pricey tours around cities, and for the hip urbanite, a subscription to a bike share program allows them the pleasure of owning a bike without worrying where to keep it to avoid theft (a particular advantage in cities like Montreal, which is notorious for bike thefts). They are also advantageous to short-term residents who may not want to invest in the bike but want the freedom of moving around the city on two wheels.
There are of course also significant environmental and health benefits to bike share programs. More people on bikes means less carbon emissions belching out of one-occupant vehicles, which has positive ramifications at both the local level (decreases in air pollution), and the global level (decreased carbon emissions contributing to an overall reduction in climate change). And nothing but good can come from getting our collective hearts pumping for a few more minutes a day, which also sets a good example for our increasingly sedentary and unhealthy children.
Bike shares are in some way a great equalizer. Affordable to all, the programs are simple, the bikes modern and the idea of escape on two wheels sexy and appealing. They change the image of the urban bike commute from belonging to the usual suspects of spandex-clad road warriors, eco-heroes in second-hand duds (amongst whom I count myself) and free-flying, rule-oblivious bike couriers, and expand it to include tourists, business people, blue collar workers, seniors, and pretty much anyone else you can imagine. In addition, as numbers of bicycles on the roads increases, so does safety.
Bike share programs are not without their challenges. They don't offer helmets, and while subscribers might have their own, tourists are much less likely to be toting around such cumbersome headgear in their suitcase. And despite the penalties imposed on users and the fact that most bikes in bike share programs are uniquely designed and easily recognizable they have still fallen prey to theft, often because they haven't been returned properly to the docking stations. In the past two years in Paris, 8,000 Velib (bike share) bikes, of a total of 23,000, have been stolen, of which only 100 have been found. In addition, over 16,000 have been vandalized.
Despite these problems, bike share programs have proved to be immensely popular. In Paris, over 78,000 rides are taken a day, and over 250,000 people have subscribed to the biking program. In Canada, theft has been much less of an issue - in Montreal, any damaged bikes have been repaired, and most stolen Bixis have been recovered; only one or two are still missing.
The increased popularity of bike shares is a positive development for local communities and the world. Perhaps the most delightful aspect of bike shares is what inspired the name of Paris' bike share program "Velib" which comes from the words "velo" (bike) and "liberte" (freedom). There is a unique, joyful freedom derived from escaping on two wheels, and in our stressed-out busy lives, the more access we have to this freedom, the better off and happier we will all be.