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Why Bike Sharing is Such a Game-Changer for U.S. Cities

New York City’s first bike-sharing program, which is the nation’s largest, has the potential to revolutionize city life -- and not just in the Big Apple.

New York City's program, sponsored by Citibank, is scheduled to begin serving riders some time this month. (Photo: AP/Craig Ruttle)
I could not get the chunky, blue bike out of its curved, gunmetal gray slot that rose up from the sidewalk at 2nd Avenue and 11th Street in Lower Manhattan. I had inserted my little rectangular plastic “key” with the bar code on it, and the light above it had flashed what my colorblind eyes told me was probably green. I pulled harder. No luck.

A kind stranger showed me how to lift the bike out, pulling up from the back. That did it. All this had occurred only after I had been befuddled by instructions requesting a passcode, which, it turned out, did not apply to me. How many others were going through similar struggles with New York’s new bike-sharing plan, formally known as Citi Bike, which has placed 6,000 bicycles all around Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn?

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I set out on my journey over the Williamsburg Bridge and into Brooklyn, where I checked the app on my iPhone to locate the nearest docking station. I checked mine in. As a holder of a $95 annual pass, I had 45 minutes to make my journey before being charged a fee. I had taken 36 minutes.

My second trip a week later went more smoothly. I found a station and a bike, and I pedaled to my 1 p.m. lunch, feeling dapper in my blue-checkered linen suit and cream-colored cap. Later that day, I logged onto the bike-sharing website, looked up my account and found my ride had lasted a mere 7 minutes and 47 seconds.

My joys, pains and initial clumsiness with New York City’s bike-sharing program, the city’s first and the nation’s largest, can serve as a metaphor for the program as a whole. While there is no way to tell the program’s ultimate fate, I can already see it has the potential to revolutionize city life, and not just in New York.

What makes bike-sharing programs special and potentially game-changing is that one only possesses the bicycle while one is riding it. You pick it up, use it and leave it. Usually when I bike, or for that matter when I drive, I’m constantly aware that I have this valuable possession with me, and must tend to it. If I bicycle to work, I have to worry about locking it, and I have to ride it home again, even if the weather has changed or, simply, my temperament.

The public bikes are not a mere amenity. They save time while expanding the parts of a city that one can reach quickly and easily. They are a type of public transit that gives the same mobility as individual private transport, without the costs or the burdens. They also increase the flexibility of the transportation system. With bicycles eventually distributed all around the city, I could, in the future, use combinations of bike, cab, subway and private car. I’m sure the bike-share program will be used in ways I can’t even imagine.

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Roughly 20 American cities now have programs, ranging from large cities such as Boston, Denver and Washington, D.C., to smaller ones such as Greenville, S.C., and Boulder, Colo. In Paris, which popularized the bike-share concept, the program now has 20,000 bikes in 1,800 stations that are used 26 million times a year. It’s changing life in the city of lights. Hangzhou, China, has what is said to be the largest bike-share program in the world, with 60,000 bikes spread across 2,700 stations.

Although larger cities have attracted attention, smaller cities and towns can and should embrace bike sharing. It’s a low-cost way to give citizens more mobility and improve the quality of life and probably commerce. Any town and city can use bike sharing, I believe, as long as it has an older network of walkable, denser streets. Sadly, I don’t think bike sharing will work in more spread out suburban counties or cities. But maybe I’m wrong. Stranger ideas have taken flight.

In 1972, Richard Ballantine published Richard’s Bicycle Book, part instruction manual, part commentary on life. The book ended with Ballantine’s wild idea in which free bikes would be distributed all over a big city. People could simply pick them up and use them. He knew this was a fantastic scenario, but he could dream, couldn’t he? To my youthful mind at the time, it seemed utopian and unachievable.

The book went on to sell millions. Sadly, Ballantine died on May 29, at the age of 72, just a few days before New York City debuted its bike-share program. If there’s an afterlife, Ballantine can take pleasure in knowing he planted one of the many seeds that grew into what could become a welcome feature of 21st-century life.

Brian Peteritas is a GOVERNING contributor.
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