The Explosive Growth of Shared-Transport: Bikes and Beyond

The Explosive Growth of Shared-Transport: Bikes and Beyond

Within the past three years, Washington, D.C., Montreal, Paris and a handful of other cities have added a new option to their existing array of alternative transport choices. Outside metro stations and public buildings, and throughout the centers of these cities, visitors and residents now have access to another compelling reason to get out of their cars for short trips. Last December, I listened to a fascinating panel discussion in Cambridge about this ambitious innovation that’s quickly spreading to cities in North America:  bicycle-sharing systems.

DC's SmartBike, the first public bike sharing program in the U.S. Photo by WABA

Titled “Bike-sharing 3.0: The future of urban shared transport and mixed mobility models,” the session focused on taking stock of cities’ somewhat limited experience with bike-sharing and other shared transport schemes, and pondering what the next generation of programs might look like. Boston anticipates rolling out their own program in summer 2010, so the topic was timely. The panel was presented by the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI); Matthieu Fierling, the program manager for Paris’s pioneering bike-sharing program, Velib’, was the main draw. Other distinguished panelists included Robin Chase (founder of ZipCar); Nicole Freedman (Director of Bicycle Programs, City of Boston); Carlo Ratti (Director, SenseableCity Lab, MIT); and Ryan Chin (PhD candidate, MIT Media Lab, Smart Cities Group).

I was hopeful that this diverse group of experts would deliver the audience an informative, comprehensive discussion, and I wasn’t disappointed. Fierling provided an invaluable insider’s view of the Paris experience, while Freedman (Boston’s “bike czar”) is clearly up to the task of learning from existing systems and ensuring Boston’s forthcoming program improves on them. The MIT researchers – Chin, in particular – added thought-provoking insight on what emerging technology might offer future programs.

While ZipCar is an apparently obvious precedent on which to model any new shared transport scheme (car sharing memberships are up 117 percent between 2007 and 2009, which can largely be attributed to ZipCar’s success), some challenges are unique to bike-sharing systems. For example, Fierling cited chronic vandalism as a significant issue in Paris’s experience. Chase pointed to ZipCar’s approach of fostering bonds between its shared cars and the neighborhoods in which they reside, which seems like useful advice toward discouraging vandals. She’s correct in suggesting that a person is less likely to deface a vehicle that’s parked in the same spot on their street, day in, day out. But shared bikes don’t typically stay in one place; a user can drop-off her bike at a different station than the one she started from, so there’s not an easy way to individualize transient shared bikes in the way that ZipCar gives each car a cute name to engender affection from neighbors. Montreal might have part of the solution to the vandalism problem: its base stations are designed to securely lock into a triangular tab instead of the front fork (wheel damage is a common result of vandalism).

With all the attention focused on Boston’s new bike-sharing system, it’s easy to forget how far the city has come in terms of basic bike infrastructure in an extremely short period. After years of being derided by national bicycle advocates (rated the worst city for bicycling by Bicycling Magazine three years in a row), Mayor Menino declared that Boston would become a “world-class bicycling city”. Toward that goal, the City has added fifteen miles of bicycle facilities and over 500 racks between 2007 and 2009, and has engaged in a variety of educational programs. Initial traffic counts indicate a 43% increase in bicycle traffic over that period. They’ve still got a long way to go, from my perspective, but the city government now clearly takes bicycle infrastructure and planning seriously.

The entire panel discussion was delayed for at least a quarter of an hour due to technical difficulties related, as it turned out, to a troublesome video clip that Carlo Ratti (the SenseableCity researcher) was intent on sharing with the audience. The demo had been recorded earlier that day in Copenhagen, where his team unveiled an innovation called the Copenhagen Wheel in conjunction with the climate conference. It turned out to be neat-sounding package: the custom wheel can be fitted to any bike, and includes an internal-gear hub, battery, motor, and various sensors. The wheel captures energy from braking and delivers the stored energy to a motor that provides a boost when it’s needed, i.e. for getting up big hills. The sensors fill a secondary (and, to me, sort of superfluous) role, monitoring geographic location, temperature, humidity, and a variety of air pollutants. All the data can be fed to a smartphone and presumably shared with other users. I can see where these features might fit into the Senseable Cities research goals, though I’m not sure if the market is ready for the amount of data this wheel is capable of generating. If the smartly packaged power-assist feature finds a more immediate niche, however, then at least something positive might have come out of Copenhagen last year.

For a thorough history and overview of bike-sharing systems, check out Paul DeMaio’s article in vol. 12, no. 4, 2009 of the Journal of Public Transportation.

Reimagine an Urban Paradise is pleased to welcome our new occasional guest blogger, Kurt Steiner. Kurt is an urban planner living in Cambridge, MA. He has extensive experience working with LEED-ND and is broadly interested in green neighborhood development and multi-modal transportation planning.

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