Let's stimulate with a major bike sharing program
Arlington hopes to launch a bike sharing pilot this year. DC plans to expand its 120-bike, 10-station SmartBike program by another ten stations as well. That would be great. But at the recent DDOT oversight hearing, Mount Pleasant ANC Commissioner and bike and pedestrian advocate Phil Lepanto asked, why not 50 new DC stations this year, and another 50 every year? Or more?
To really make bike sharing work for everyone, systems need to have bikes in a wide range of locations. A station at the Reeves Center and one at Dupont is nice and useful for people who work on U Street and live on the Red Line, but to serve everyone, we need stations within a couple blocks of most places people want to go. And as Lepanto pointed out in the hearing, we also need stations where a lot of people live but where there's no Metro. Finally, we ought to have a one-day pricing plan and stations at all the major tourist destinations.
Paris's Vélib has 20,000 bicycles in 1,450 stations, with stations in the city center averaging only 300 meters apart. Now, anyone walking around Paris sees Vélib bikes everywhere. Bike sharing experts say systems should ideally have one bike per 150 residents. That means DC ought to have about 4,000 bikes, and Arlington around 1,400.
Left: Vélib stations in a portion of central Paris. Right: The entire SmartBike system.
(A bug in the official SmartBike map places the stations in the wrong locations at this zoom level.)
The biggest obstacle is startup cost. Systems cost very little to maintain, since subscription fees and ads cover most of the operating and replacement cost. But cities have to build the system in the first place.
Can the stimulus help? The main pots of money don't work for bike sharing, since the stimulus focused on existing, long-established ways of spending transportation dollars. However, there's a $1.5 billion "discretionary grant" program. States and localities can apply for money for programs that improve transportation but aren't otherwise funded. The catch: projects have to cost $20-300 million. Arlington currently has a grant of about $200,000 for their planned pilot, according to an Examiner article last year, though Arlington Commuter Services head Chris Hamilton says they're hoping to find more money to start with a bigger system. A maximal system of 1,400 bikes of the fancier kind DC uses, he said, would cost at most $6 million for capital and operating costs for the first two years.
We could hit the $20 million mark if a group of jurisdictions joined together. If 1,400 Arlington bikes could hit $6 million, a 5,000-bike super-program in DC and Arlington might be able to meet the minimum. Or how about a regional system including Alexandria, Bethesda, Silver Spring, Hyattsville, College Park and more? The total cost would be a lot less than just scaling up Arlington's numbers linearly, because bigger systems achieve greater economies of scale. The region could get a lot more bikes for lower cost with a big system.
We could also team up with other areas. Denver and San Francisco have been talking about setting up their own bike sharing programs. How about a national bike sharing pilot program? All of the regions could use the same technology, getting even more competitive rates from a vendor. And then, perhaps, if you're already a member in one city, that membership could automatically allow you to take out bikes when visiting other cities.
Such a program would yield a lot of sexy headlines and ribbon-cuttings across the nation. Plus, they'd create jobs building, managing, and maintaining the systems. And once we've got large numbers of Americans finding bike sharing as convenient and useful as the Parisians have, existing cities will want to keep expanding and new cities will want to start their own programs, creating jobs and reducing our vehicular emissions, oil dependence, and obesity.
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