Montréal, eager to promote itself as one of the continent’s most important cities, looked to Paris rather than modesty when developing its Bixi bike-sharing plan, which it will launch early in May. The service, which will begin with stations in the core of the city and close during winter months, will offer 3,000 bikes and 300 stations, putting it at a similar scale as Barcelona’s Bicing program, though still far smaller than Paris’ enormous 20,000-bike Vélib’. Like the latter project, though, Montréal has plans to expand into the neighboring areas, eventually much of the city. Check out the service’s stations page to note the number and density of stations in the system’s core area.
No U.S. city has yet to make such an ambitious commitment to bike sharing, a concept that has proven quite successful in the European cities that have undertaken it. Each program includes stations located throughout the central city, usually with at least 10 bikes apiece. Users can rent bikes by the day, month, or year, at quite reasonable prices, and then return the bikes to any other station in the city within 30 minutes free of charge and then at increasing rates over time. These services provide an ideal alternative to automobiles and traditional mass transit and allow people to take short commutes without waiting on buses or riding their cars; they also promote exercise. Quality of service is ensured by remote monitoring, service crews; users are unlikely to steal because the service is connected to one’s credit card.
Programs that have over 1,000 bikes each in service – usually subsidized by urban advertising – include Lyon, Montpellier, Toulouse, Copenhagen, and Stockholm, as well as Paris and Barcelona. Dozens of other, smaller cities have hundreds of bikes in operation, and Germany has several “Call-a-Bike” operation in major cities that differ slightly from the aforementioned model but offer via phone the same easy, immediately accessible, rental model.
The U.S.’s only examples of bike-share progress are in Washington and San Francisco, but it would be difficult to put either program in the same league as what’s about to open in Montréal. D.C.’s program – currently in operation – has 120 bikes distributed among 10 stations; San Francisco’s proposal will include an embarrassingly small number of bikes: 50.
What’s disappointing about both programs is that they’re designed to fail. Bike-share can only work when there are stations located every few blocks all over a dense city; otherwise, bikers aren’t provided ease of use that encourages cycling between multiple and sometimes unplanned locations, just as private automobiles allow. The fact is that systems like D.C.’s and San Francisco’s can serve only a tiny percentage of total commutes within the urban core because of those limits, while Paris’ and Montréal’s programs can be game-changers and completely replace auto commuting over short distances within proscribed service zones.
We would do well to emulate Montréal’s example in the U.S., and perhaps we’re on the way there. On Wednesday, New York City’s Department of City Planning released a proposal for a massive bike-share program in the country’s biggest city (via Streetsblog). The project would – if approved – encompass a 50,000-bike roll-out, phased and beginning with 10,000 bikes in Lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, and thereafter expanding into the other dense areas of the city, including Queens and the Bronx. New York’s got it right in asserting that the only way to make bike-share work is to work ambitiously from the start, rather than assuming that a 50 or 100 bike program will “be successful” when it simply cannot. In major cities, only projects with thousands of bikes placed every few blocks in dense urban cores will be effective in allowing bikes to acquire a significant market share. New York’s proposal would be such a project – it’s just got to be funded first…