As you may or may not have heard, the city of Paris recently launched a citywide bicycle rental program. Ten thousand bikes were made available to anyone with a credit card; one “joins” the program for a day, a week or the entire year, and then pays by the hour to use one of the bikes. With the first half hour free of charge, many bikers are able to take short jaunts (or cobble together many short jaunts into longer trips) paying only the initial membership fee.
Initially derided by Parisians as an impractical fantasy, the bike rental has become a runaway success since it began in mid July. 100,000 year-long memberships have been purchased; the average bike sees ten rides a day. By year’s end the city will have put another 10,000 bikes into circulation.
Most incredible is the fact that the city has paid nothing to set up the system, and will make an estimated $25-30 million from rental fees this year: a French outdoor-advertising company paid for the bikes and stations in exchange for the rights to billboard sites around town, and the rental fees all go to the city.
Our own Mayor Michael Bloomberg, visiting the City of Light and her Mayor, the Green Socialist Bertrand Delanoe, a couple of weeks ago, declared the program “fascinating.” But despite his own Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s enthusiasm for a similar project here, Bloomberg doubted whether municipal bike rental could be made to work in the Big Apple. Rough roads, a lack of bike lanes, the bike helmet law and general New York City lawlessness were given as the most serious impediments. It seems to me that the revenue from rentals could go a long way to helping patch our streets, and the helmet law could be repealed: a lot of riders don’t wear helmets anyway, and the NYPD seems to hand out tickets just to be vindictive. And the best way to improve bicycle safety is actually to increase the number of bikes on the road (see Transportation Alternatives [transalt.org] for all the details — it’s pretty cool).
Bloomberg has already made bike lanes a priority: they just announced the first European-style “buffered” bike lane, along a short stretch of Ninth Avenue, to open later this year. Wouldn’t a citywide bike rental be the perfect complement to more bike lanes? Wouldn’t low-cost, super-accessible bike rentals help ease non-riders into the joys of pedaling, and perhaps eventual bike ownership?
And then let’s factor in all the other benefits: reduced air pollution would mean healthier kids and adults. One million New Yorkers suffer from asthma. Bike rentals on the Parisian model could be cheaper for commuting than the MTA — as long as you could get to work in under a half hour, your only cost would be the annual membership fee (around $50). And even if it took longer, you’d be paying around a dollar. Imagine the benefits to the thousands of us who struggle to afford our Metrocards. And what about the much-lamented maxing out of MTA capacity? With the L train standing-room-only at two in the afternoon, and thousands of apartments being built all over the city, we’re about to run out of carrying capacity. You can only run so many trains, after all, and adding new train lines is fiscally and logistically problematic (umm, the Second Avenue line, anyone?).
The crowning achievement of a New York bicycle program? I would like to advance the hypothesis that lots of bikes would make for a lot of healthier, and happier, people. Biking is exercise, and most of us need more exercise. Everyone I know who’s taken up biking in the city has lost five or ten pounds — eco-blogger Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, reported a loss of 20 pounds from biking and eating locally. Beyond endorphins, there’s the intense joy of the ride itself — silent, pollution free, faster than walking but with plenty of time to take in the city around you — there’s nothing better.
For more information on biking in the city, go to transalt.org, and join! Contact the Mayor’s office, and your local city councilperson, and express your support for bikes.