Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Bikeways or Bike Sharing

I had an interesting question posed to me today, "What would you rather see in your city: a bike sharing program or quality bikeways/bike lanes?". I have always believed that you need a comprehensive bikeway system, and I’ve also become a believer in bike sharing systems like Vélib in Paris, Bixi in Montréal, Nice Ride in Minneapolis, and Capital BikeShare in Washington DC. The biggest problem is that transportation departments only have so much money, so which to prioritize?
Bikeways seem like the obvious choice for most. Communities have to create conditions where bicycling is comfortable and safe, or few will bike. I hear this over and over, no matter where we are working and via a wide variety of networking methods. It therefore seems obvious: start with bikeways.

Bikeways seem like the obvious choice for most. Communities have to create conditions where bicycling is comfortable and safe, or few will bike. I hear this over and over, no matter where we are working and via a wide variety of networking methods. It therefore seems obvious: start with bikeways.

But wait… successful bike share systems are highly visible and get lots of people out cycling, immediately, as evidenced by Paris, Dublin, Montreal, and Washington DC, and numerous others. And it can be really hard to convince leaders to support bikeways when current demand is low, because, of course, of the lack of good bikeways. So perhaps a public bike share system is a better starting point because a fleet of cool-looking, accessible, easy-to-use bikes is game changing, demand-inducing, and media-attracting. They provide an instant solution to getting people a bike and pedaling their way to a meeting or store. Suddenly hundreds or thousands of people start cycling for short trips.

This presence of cyclists demonstrates a long-suppressed demand and creates inducement to put in the needed bikeways, even if they require trade-off with travel lanes or parking. Certainly many of the European cities have taken this approach, and the cities of Boston MA, Chattanooga TN, and San Antonio TX are about to explore this question as they launch bicycle share systems on their largely bikeway-free streets.

An even more obvious answer: invest in bikeways and bike sharing simultaneously because the provision of bikeways and the stimulation of demand must go hand-in-hand. This is truly a winning strategy, as evidenced by Paris and Washington, D.C.

But let’s face it, neither public bike sharing or bikeways are free (although both are a bargain relative to the cost of auto-oriented infrastructure), and many communities will need to choose a sequence. Most of the North American bike share systems in place today have some level of government investment, although this is not necessarily a foregone conclusion given its ability to attract private sponsors.

And thus, the sequence depends entirely on your community. No one right way to get there, as long as you’re rolling in the right direction.

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