Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bike Sharing In SA-You're kidding right?

Bicycle Sharing has become the In Thing for cities wishing to project a green image.  Portland, Oregon was the first city in the US to start a program back in 1994.  Its program was simple (take a bike, use it then leave it for someone else to use) and free but ended in failure due to vandalism and theft.  Bike share programs are much more sophisticated today and although they aren't free, the fees are affordable.  San Antonio kicks off its pilot program, "B-cycle" on October 13, 2010 at the MPO Bike Night event.  But what exactly is bicycle sharing and how does it work?

There are several bike sharing programs in Europe and other cities in the US to draw inspiration and lessons from.  There's even a bike sharing blog.

In Paris, Velib (short for velo (bicycle) and liberte (freedom)  has been running for three years now and is very popular.  Velib has three subscription options that allow you to use the service for one day, one week or one year.  To subscribe you must have a major bank card (Mastercard, Visa or American Express).  The charge to rent the bike for 1 day is 1€ ($1.34), a week 5€ ($6.67) and a year for 29€ ($38.69) for a year's subscription.  The service encourages short term usage by making the first 30 minutes of use free and then charging additional fees that escalate over time.  They also encourage uses to park bikes in docking stations at the top of hills, like Mont Marte, by adding an additional 15 minutes of free use.  The bikes are sturdy, have a guard to protect clothing from the chain, have a large basket to carry purses, brief cases, etc., and a security chain in case you have to park it somewhere other than a docking station.

Bicing in Barcelona is another bicycle for hire system that has also been running for about 3 years.  Similar to the Velib system, it is also meant for short to medium length trips.  However the system caters exclusively to commuters who live in the city (to keep from competing with local tourist companies that hire out bicycles), subscriptions are only given out on a yearly basis for 30€ ($40.02).

Pamplona had a bicycle sharing (n'Bici) program when I was there in June 2009 (inagurated in 2007). The Ayuntamiento (City Hall) website described the program as something like checking out a book out from the library.  You could go to city hall to get your card issued and then swipe it at the n'Bici docking stations.  Now it's no where to be found on the Ayuntamiento site and I'm wondering if the last festival de San Fermin (the running of the bulls) was it's downfall.  Bicycle theft and vandalism is a common problem for bicycle sharing programs and things get pretty rowdy around festival time.

Nice Ride in Minneapolis charges a subscription plus a trip fee.  The first 30 minutes are free to encourage short rides.  Subscription prices go from $5.00 for 24 hours to $60.00 for a year.  Lydia Kelly of the San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) was recently in Minneapolis and she said she saw elementary school students using the Nice Ride bikes to go home after school. 

In order to discourage theft most of the bikes used in these programs are heavy, three gear models that are meant for short term rides over fairly easy terrain.  San Antonio Bike Share, a non profit organization which will be maintained and operated by Bike World bicycle shops, will use bikes provided by B-Cycle, a company that provides bikes for over one hundred cities in the US.  There is no word yet on the fees for the SA program but it will have membership fees for access to the bikes and usage fees based on the amount of time the bike is used.

Criticisms of bike sharing programs include vulnerability to theft, damaged bicycles that are unrideable, no place to carry purses, bags, etc, and not enough bicycles.  The San Antonio program solves the theft problem by using bikes that have GPS chips installed in them and by making sure that VIA bus drivers don't allow the bikes to be put on their bike racks.  Some bicycles used in sharing programs have a button you can push to alert the company that the bike is damaged.  B-Cycle bikes don't appear to have this feature, their demo video just says to put a damage bike back on the docking station.  I'm not sure how they would know which ones need repair.  The B-Cycle bikes do have a basket in the front to hold items you have with you, they also encourage you to use a helmet, but it has to be your own, there are no helmets to share (probably a good idea, I don't want to get head lice!).  The San Antonio program is starting with 194 bikes in the downtown area, but I haven't been able to find out where the docking stations will be.  The Streetsblog was critical of the San Francisco program because it was starting with only 50 bikes, but San Francisco has a much more friendly bicycle culture than San Antonio, so the criticism is justified.

The unfriendly bike culture in SA is likely to be the biggest obstacle to the bike sharing program, as most of you cyclists out there know, bicycling in San Antonio can be hazardous to your health, sometimes even deadly.  The Bike Map put out by the MPO rates most of the streets in the downtown area as fair when it comes to cycling conditions, but they obviously need some work.  Streets to avoid downtown are Commerce between Alamo and Frio, Frio south of Dolorosa, Dolorosa/Market between Dwyer and Cameron (Spanish Governor's Palace),  San Pedro north of Main, Alamo from Commerce to HemisFair Plaza, Durango east of Alamo and west of IH 35 and Cypress street.  I'd definetely get a bike map from the MPO before venturing anywhere on a bike, even on the streets considered fair you have to be on guard.

Bicycle rules of the road for automobiles and bicycles are not very well known in SA, so FYI

  • A cyclist shall never ride against the flow of traffic
  • A cyclist must obey all traffic signs, signals and rules of the road (this means stop at red lights and stop signs, no rolling through)
  • Every bicycle in use at night time shall be equipped with the following:  a lamp that emits a white light visible at a distance of at least 500 feet and a type of red reflector on the rear approved by the Department of Public Safety (it doesn't appear the the B-Cycle bikes have these features, at least from their website)
  • Persons riding side by side shall not impede the normal and reasonable flow of traffic;  Persons riding side by side on a laned roadway must ride in a single lane
  • Bicycles may be ridden on roadway shoulders, except where expressly prohibited by law
  • A motorist must allow 3 feet of clearance when passing a cyclist (you have to give this much to other cars to avoid clipping them, so why not to cyclists as well)
I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who tries out the SA bike sharing program to see what you think, or even if you are driving near them downtown.  Drop me a line.

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