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San Antonio getting public bike share, should we be envious?

Posted Jun 21 2010 12:38pm

This weekend, an Austin on Two Wheels reader set me news that the City of San Antonio is moving forward with a public bike share program to open up later this year. For those unfamiliar with bike share, it is a program that lets you check out bikes from self serve stalls at various locations for a small fee. San Antonio is taking about $1 million in federal stimulus package money to get the first in Texas program off the ground (note: the City of Austin has a City staff only bike share program that is a few years old.)

So should we be feeling bad that a city far behind Austin in green-ness has apparently leap frogged us in this endeavour? Not so fast. Just because other cities are doing things, doesn’t mean we should be too, and I think planners tend to focus too much on being first or getting national awards then planning it right. It would be helpful to look at the cost benefit of funding such a program and potential long term success before jumping on the bandwagon.

“Bike sharing is great, right? Why are you, a local voice for alternative transportation, down on bike share?” you ask. Well, unlike most of the people cheerleading for bike share, I’ve actually founded and run a vehicle sharing program, Austin CarShare . I have seen the challenges of doing so, and frankly, I don’t think we are at a point where bike share is a self-sustaining, growth program. I believe in bike share’s potential, but I don’t believe we are there yet to fund a program to the public.

Bike share can work elsewhere. Copenhagen has a successful bike share program that is over a decade old. Paris’ Velib program was first heralded as a universal success then boo-hooed as a money pit (though I believe that had more to do with underbidding from the operations company and French laws limiting the money they could recover from user damage.) B-Cycle, an industry funded bike share in Denver, has gotten some initially very good numbers , but it has just launched and it is too early to tell long term success.

There is limited money on the table for bike facilities, so before our community plunks down funds that could build real, on-the-road bike infrastructure in favor of the equipment and staffing for such a project we should think about these three real challenges in making this a success.

1. Americans don’t like to share. There. I said the thing no one wants to admit. This is not insurmountable, but it is a cultural bias enhanced by all the marketing encouraging you to buy lots of stuff. This can and will change, but not without some negative reinforcement. You have to make owning or the similar alternative very expensive in comparison to sharing/renting to get behavior change. Based on the strong aversion our country has to voluntarily shoulder any additional cost for even the most limited attempts to rein in greenhouse gases, our leaders lack the political courage to make these changes, and we will have to waiting until change is very painfully forced upon us.

2. You are leaping 2 tall buildings stacked on one another all at once. My experience with Austin CarShare was that getting people to think about sharing was a leap. To ask people to share and change their mode of transportation, especially when that mode is a car, is twice if not more the leap. Most people are resistant to change. Too much change without the necessary support for facilitate that change (more on that in a moment), and you will get push back. People have to envision themselves doing something to feel comfortable trying it. You are asking a society used to privately owned cars to drop the “privately owned” and “car” from the equation. This is a steep curve to climb.

3. We don’t have the infrastructure yet that will encourage mass use. The most long term successful program I’ve seen is Copenhagen’s bike share program. Funny, bike share succeeds in a city that already had 1/3rd of the population biking to work. This gets to the root of bike share: it will succeed only in cities where biking as a valid form of everyday transportation will succeed. Just putting bikes out on the street is not enough. People have to see them as a safe, viable form of transport. Until we have a network of bike paths, separated bike lanes, and bike boulevards that make the novice comfortable jumping on a bike, we will not get there. These kind of facilities breeds confidence in the users and more people will use the facilities. Seeing others in large numbers riding bikes on the streets is the sort of cue early majority market users need to see to even consider riding. Don’t believe me? Read this Copenhagenize article about how sushi became mainstream . 10 years ago would you expect sushi to be ubiquitous in supermarkets from Buda to Lubbock? Yet today, sushi is mainstream. And so can cycling. BUT bike share is not the bridge. Facilities are the bridge.

I’d love to have bike share in Austin, but I cannot justify the money going to that program while we are still so far from facilities that serve cyclists of all skill levels. Let’s be the smart ones and instead of jumping on the bike share bandwagon as the silver bullet like everyone else, let’s make a world class cycling city and add bike share as an additional service.

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