Just Like Riding A Bike

Will the new London bike share program be perfect? Probably not. But at least you all have the courage and wisdom to try.

gotham girlWhen we settled on bike share programs as the subject of this week’s Gotham Girl, I admit – I was worried. I wasn’t worried about the new Barclays Cycle Hire. I find that very exciting and clearly so does Boris. The closer we draw to the July 30th launch – yes, July 30th! Just a little over a month! –  the giddier he seems.

I wasn’t worried about finding facts and figures on bike share programs. These facts and figures are everywhere – in discussions on urban planning, mass transit, environmental issues, health, energy conservation, etc. Nor was I worried that I’d struggle to find an array of opinions. Plenty of people on both sides of the debate share their views with little prompting needed.

So what was my problem? I was worried that I was going to spend too much time whining about New York City’s lack of a bike share program. It’s ridiculous that we don’t have one, that we’re not even planning one. Of course, even if we were planning one – we’d need more cycling infrastructure before it had any chance of being implemented.

Boris knows this type of infrastructure is central to developing a successful bike culture. He said, “If we are to get more Londoners on to two wheels rather than four we need to provide the facilities to help them do so.” Such as? Well, secure bike storage and parking, for one. Places like the London Bridge Cycle Park for people who commute and use their own bikes regularly. There are other issues as well – junction design, route management, etc. – but none of them require reinventing the wheel. So why can’t NYC wrap its collective head around this.

Despite what the opposition here says, creating this infrastructure is not an engineering obstacle. Lots of cities have done it. London is doing it and London is larger, denser and (layout-wise) more complicated than NYC. Is it an economic stumbling block? Hardly. Planning and implementation costs are dwarfed by what the Metropolitan Transit Authority spends on their shoddy quick fixes for long-term problems. Add in what it costs them to keep patching those quick fixes and bike share ends up being a veritable bargain.

No, this is a political stumbling block. NYC lacks the political will and London doesn’t. It’s as simple as that. I don’t blame Mayor Bloomberg particularly. He’s shown more support for the expansion of bike culture than any mayor has for – well, since I can remember. I blame the city council and the state government and I blame them for several administrations back. They seem content with announcing grand plans and then implementing only very abbreviated versions of those plans. Just the other week the city announced a bike lane expansion so sweeping that it almost took my breath away. Guess how long it took for them to back pedal on it? Two days. It was nice while it lasted.

New York City isn’t wholly without cycling infrastructure, of course. We have some bike lanes – loosely defined as pictures of bikes painted on a particular section of road. Of course, only cyclists seem to know or care that these are bike lanes. Certainly few cars and buses behave as if they know what a bike lane is for.  They seem to believe it has something to do with parking.

Looking back at what I’ve just written, I was right to be worried. I’m almost half way in and I haven’t talked about any actual bike share programs yet. All I’ve done is complain. So let’s ignore New York’s biking blind spot for now and look at bike share in action.

Obviously bike share programs are more practical for denser, urban areas than for use in more sprawling, wide open spaces. Bikes aren’t the most time-efficient way to get from, say, London to Cambridge either. But for traveling between point A and point B within a central target area, they are a great option. Of course, so is the Tube but bikes aren’t really being proposed as an alternative to the Tube. They are being proposed as a cheaper, greener, traffic-lightening alternative to cars when you are going short to moderate distances.

  • Cycling is more environmentally friendly than driving, helping to cut fuel consumption, decrease air pollution – and cut noise pollution too, come to think of it.
  • Depending on traffic and route, cycling can be quicker than driving. Do bikes get stuck in traffic? Sure but less frequently than cars. And if more people used bikes, there would be fewer cars on the road – making it easier for those in the remaining cars as well as for those on the bikes. Win-win.
  • Cycling is great exercise. The only thing that gets exercised while I’m driving is the seedier side of my vocabulary.
  • Cycling is also fun. This is obviously a matter of opinion but I personally find bike riding fun. Lest you think I am anti-car (I’m not – I am anti-traffic and pro-alternative transportation), I also find driving fun and have a suggestion for others who enjoy it as well. If you visit the U.S. and get a chance to take the Skip Barber Racing Course, do it. You will not be sorry.
  • Cycling is cheaper than driving. Cost of purchase, maintenance and fuel aside (all cheaper for bikes than cars), parking costs for cars in NYC are astronomical. I assume the same is true in London.

Programs like Barclays Cycle Hire make cycling an even more affordable option since you don’t have to buy, store or maintain the bike you use. For details on how the new program works you can attend one of the many roadshows being put on all summer or watch this new video:

I don’t know about you, but having seen that – I am ready to go “check out” a bike right now. Sadly, I’m in NYC and not London. Or Paris, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Montreal, Milan, D.C., or any of the other cities currently utilizing and experimenting with bike share.

By the way – I’m not unaware of the problems with bike share programs. Of course there are problems.

Paris, which has the largest bike share system in the world (with 20,000 bicycles and over 1,600 stations), experienced a lot of bike theft and vandalism in that first year. There were mechanical and software problems with some of the stations. There were logistical problems with high demand in some areas leaving potential riders without bikes and low demand in other areas leaving bikes idle for long periods of time. As these issues came up, the Paris system made changes and adjustments in light of what they were learning. The system is improving all the time and the program is now expanding to meet growing demand from more outlying areas.

The experience of the Paris program is helping other cities anticipate, prevent and address similar issues in their systems. Of course, no single solution is going to fit every location but with so much information being shared and made available among the systems, it means problems are tackled faster and more effectively over time.

There is also valuable insight gained from success – such as the success of the Bixi system in Montreal, one of the most popular bike shares in the world. It’s also the system many of the latest bike shares are based on including programs in London, Boston, Melbourne, and Minneapolis. Bixi launched in May ’09 with 3,000 bicycles and 300 stations. The system was ready for a major expansion only a month later and in June ‘09, they added 2000 more bikes and 100 new stations. By Oct ‘09, the system had been used over one million times. Like the Paris program, Bixi had problems with vandalism and theft right after launch. This time it was the stations and racks that were destroyed to get at the bikes more than damage to the bikes themselves. New designs were developed and once they were implemented, that sort of damage decreased dramatically.

So, let’s sum up. Bikes are a great alternative mode of transport for short to medium trips within a dense target area. They are cheaper than cars, cleaner than cars and bike share programs like the Barclays Cycle Hire make these two-wheeled wonders accessible to more people than ever before.

Bike share programs are growing in popularity and expanding all over the world. Are there problems and growing pains? Yes. Does that mean they shouldn’t be tried? No. It means you look at what has happened elsewhere and learn from that experience. As London has done and is doing.

New York needs to stop dithering about bike share and actually do something about it. Just try something and see if it works. If it doesn’t, try something else. I’m tired of hearing that we can’t afford the luxury of getting it wrong. Talk about short-sighted. You know what we can’t afford? We can’t afford to wait for perfect. Will the new London bike share program be perfect? No. But at least you all have the courage and wisdom to try.

24 thoughts on “Just Like Riding A Bike”

  1. What a good idea. Will there be dressing-up boxes for the cyclists? With orange and turquoise lycra, and funny hats?

  2. you may laugh, Ed (and the visual you suggest IS funny) but cycle-chic is a very hot topic these days. I came across a site the ponders the question “Is it possible to cycle in London and look good?” Their conclusion? Yes such a thing IS possible and they have pictures to prove it. 🙂

    Some suggestions are more practical than others, of course but I find it all rather inspiring. I really miss my bike.

  3. dmnyc, Cycling in London and looking good: yep, the pictures prove it. But wouldn’t these girls still look cool riding on a bin-lorry?

  4. you mean the women in the fashion spread pictures? well sure – though I suspect riding on a bin lorry might less comfy 🙂 But I really meant I was inspired by the pictures of real “riders on the street” people and all the cute accessories – especially the panniers.

  5. Along with her manners, this country’s spirit of public responsibility has in the last sixty-five years of ever growing socialism declined to a point of almost total indifference at best and outright sociopathy at worst :  I foresee a great deal of vandalism and what one might call ‘petty damage’, such as the theft of lights or just the failure to press the maintenance button by users finding a defect.  I do however hope this scheme will be a success ;  it deserves to be.

    I also hope that those using the machines will display the same courtesy as do riders in Oxford — the British equivalent of Peking — and that pedestrians will quickly learn to look around before changing direction !

    ~ · ~

    By the way :  ‘you all’ (in the sub-heading) is likely lost on your London readers ;  unfortunately, since the demise of the second-person singular and adoption of a bastardized form of the plural for both numbers, standard English no longer has a convenient means of expressing number in the second person.  It really would be neat, if we adopted this expression.  (Anyway :  what’s a Yankee girl doing writing ‘you all’ ?  Up, like …)

    Finally :  was that not the unmistakeable figure of the Mayor himself in a Hitchcockian cameo appearance toward the end of the clip ?

    ΠΞ

  6. I look forward to trying it out.

    *Boris* – can you make sure there is a generous Charing Cross/Embankment cycle supply and a Westminster one? I can then have a lovely cycle ride by the river over to parliament in five minutes instead of the usual ten minute walk!

  7. If my own Capital City wasn’t so hilly this would be a great scheme. Still, we are getting an environmentally friendly tram system – that’s if it ever gets built!!!

  8. (Anyway : what’s a Yankee girl doing writing ‘you all’ ? Up, like …)

    Well spotted. It would be that despite being born in New York and living here now, this Yankee girl was raised in Houston, Texas. You can take the girl out of the Gulf Coast but you cannot take the Gulf Coast out of the girl.

    Well – that’s not entirely true. You can take it out to an extent as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t write “y’all.” 🙂

  9. balloon man, I read about the pilot bike share scheme tried out recently in San Fran. I thought they’d gone mad – all those hills? I felt faint just walking up some of them after a while – but clearly they have much stronger legs than I. The test went very well and was extremely popular. The logistics of a wider launch area are now being studied.

  10. Mel, that will be a lovely ride.

    It’s actually one of my favorite walking routes as well whenever I am there. I had a friend who worked at the Playhouse – the theater right near the Embankment station. We’d meet there, walk along toward Westminster and then turn up to Birdcage Walk.

  11. Gotham Girl allowed as how “… this Yankee girl was raised in Houston …”

    Hell … in the part of Northern Virginia in which I lived in for some years I hardly ever heard anyone use the abbreviated form ‘Yankee’ ;  it was always given in full.

    ’Course, y’know that “y’all” is what Southern folks call a ketch, don’tcha ?

    ΠΞ

  12. E. B. White’s breakdown of Yankee hierarchy always makes me laugh:

    To foreigners, a Yankee is an American.
    To Americans, a Yankee is a Northerner.
    To Northerners, a Yankee is an Easterner.
    To Easterners, a Yankee is a New Englander.
    To New Englanders, a Yankee is a Vermonter.
    And in Vermont, a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast.

  13. Good news on road traffic released by the Dept for Transport today:

    In 2009, the overall motor vehicle traffic volume in Great Britain was 313.2 billion vehicle miles, down by 3.0 billion vehicle miles from last year.

    This 1.0 per cent fall in overall traffic levels (which follows on from a 0.8 per cent fall between 2007 and 2008) is the first time motor vehicle traffic has fallen for two consecutive years since records began in 1949. However, traffic levels in 2009 were 7.9 per cent higher than in 1999.

    These reductions have been achieved under Labour politicians. They are likely to be reversed under the new Tories who favour the selfish motorist.

    Boris Johnson exemplifies this by cancelling the western extension of the Congestion Charge for reasons of spinelessness.

  14. ‘tootle’ makes a very good point.

    Let us ignore for a minute the fact that much of the trumpeted reduction in traffic volume is almost certainly accounted for by a combination of sampling error and statistical techniques designed to achieve a pre-determined outcome.

    With a government that brings the country to the verge of bankruptcy — as tootle’s Labour politicians have done — there will inevitably be a reduction in economic activity and therefore road traffic.  So, if a reduction in road traffic were demonstrably a measure of happiness, we ought really to be hoping for the return of the Labour administration.

    As to tootle’s allusion to “the selfish motorist”, I find myself in agreement with him :  motorists are, after all, nothing more than the population in motion and, after sixty-five years of creeping socialism, they exhibit an attitude on the roads — as throughout modern society — of unrelenting selfishness :  what’s yours is mine, mate ;  what’s mine’s me own.

    ΠΞ

  15. It’s needed. From the Grauniad:

    “The City of London has been found to be one of the most polluted places in Europe after monitoring equipment recorded dangerous levels of minute particles for the 36th time this year. Under EU rules, Britain is allowed no more than 35 “bad air” days in the whole year, and now faces court cases and unlimited fines by Europe.”

  16. Does Mr Johnson provide free bike-riding lessons, too?

    I’m sure some adults can’t ride a bike; even though they can drive a car, as a car has 4 wheels so it never falls.

    In my case, with a dirt poor background, having to walk barefoot selling roasted peanuts when young, I didn’t have a chance to learn how to ride a bike; my parents couldn’t afford to buy me a bike either.

  17. Cycling is getting rid of cars.London is full up with cars. The effort to increase cycling is a great revolution. but cycling in the london outskirts is more dangerous than in the congestion zone, people are not used to cyclists. please change this, introduce congestion throughout the whole of london, parking charges throughout the whole of london, carsharing website from government for schools and going to work, so we reduce the amount of cars, and create a more human society.’VAUBAN’, Freiburg ;http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYKeiXaTVFU

  18. Only a month to go until Cycle Hire goes “live.” Just watched a video of one of the docking stations being installed ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFdNf4bkl-A ) and another video about the cycle superhighways ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezwWf9Hk7hY ).

    Of course, there are issues – it’s clear car and bus drivers will need time to become accustomed to not only the presence of these lanes but accustomed to accommodating them as well. And vice versa since cyclists need to be aware and responsible for their part of this two way street. (Ha! Two way street. Sorry – puns. Helpless before them. Moving on.) Additionally, there are places where the lanes need to be widened or filled in.

    Doubtless these cycle superhighways, like the bike share, will involve some growing pains and changes as real time information and user experience comes in. But again, like with the bike share, I must applaud all involved for getting on board with these initiatives, getting them implemented and committing themselves to making them work.

  19. Boris is a mayor to whom none can compare,
    he came with a dream and a bicycle to share,
    he rode through the parks hed invested in,
    London better off for having him,
    hes set us up with what we need for 2012,
    he bought comedy to politics as well,
    that’s Alexander our mayor our man,
    alcohol on the tube he also has banned,
    he may of slipped up with the bendy bus,
    but hes done so much good we shall make no fuss,
    hes got the public’s best interests at heart,
    we were so glad to see red ken depart,
    hes improved the capital’s and Londoner’s health,
    and unlike others he can laugh at himself,
    by far the best mayor London has had,
    he will always be remembered hes no passing fad,
    and hes jolly good at wiff waff old chap!
    a true Tory is he i wish he could be,
    given the key to number ten,
    what a delight it would be to see him as P.M!

  20. China has brilliant bike schemes working perfectly for years with a much bigger population and more crowded streets – just copy what they already do perfectly.

    To remove the bike from the rack you simply swipe your smart card throw, and when you replace your bike you swipe your card through again and you are refunded the deposit that you paid when you took the bike.

    I would have thought that Boris would have seen them when he visited China.

    I can send you photos if you like.

    Albert Gazeley.

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