The joys and economies of bike sharing done correctly


Published: Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 10, 2013 at 8:13 p.m.

Gainesville’s great experiment in mobility socialism ended in a flash of ignominious yellow.

It was an Earth Day 2000 initiative. The city had reclaimed several decrepit bicycles, fixed them up, painted them a hideous yellow and strategically posted them around the downtown area for public use.

The idea was that anyone who wanted to go, say, from the library to lunch, could grab a yellow bike and save the time of walking and the gas of driving. The thinking behind the garish yellow was that nobody would want to steal something that ugly.

Wrong.

The program had hardly gotten rolling before the yellow bikes began to disappear or fall victim to vandalism.

The intentions were good but the execution flawed. As it turned out, Gainesville was way ahead of the times and far behind in the technology of bike sharing.

On a brisk, breezy spring Saturday last weekend in Washington, D.C., I experienced the joys and economies of bike sharing done correctly ... and as it is increasingly being practiced in dozens of cities around the world, including more than 40 in the U.S.

Capital Bikeshare works like this: You walk up to a kiosk and swipe a debit card. For $7 you are entitled to the use of as many of the city’s 1,500 distinctive red bicycles as you can sequentially use in the course of a single day.

The caveat being that if you use any one bike for more than 30 minutes you are charged extra. If you want a bicycle for all-day use there are any number of private rental shops in this cycle-friendly city. These bikes are for short hops ... errands, lunch, closing the gaps between transit stops or whatever.

The debit swipe gets you a combination number. Walk over to the rack of waiting cycles, enter the combination into a docking station, pull out your selected two-wheeler and you are on your way.

Jill and I were in town to visit our daughter Jenny. We picked up our bikes just outside the National Zoo and took off down Connecticut Avenue. Being out-of-towners we followed Jenny and her friend Rob along a bewildering number of narrow side streets, grand causeways and over a very long bridge spanning Rock Creek Park.

D.C. is a large city with the usual traffic congestion. But there are bike lanes and “sharrows” (large painted decals in the lanes to remind motorists that they are sharing the road).That and the sheer number of cyclists using the roads make it clear to even the most distracted drivers that “bikes belong” in D.C.

Admittedly, navigating Dupont Circle on two wheels can be a bit of an adventure. But driving it in stop-and-go traffic — as we had done just the day before — is no walk in the park either.

Eventually, after a ride of maybe 20 minutes, we arrived at a very cool place on K Street called Busboys and Poets (Long story short, Langston Hughes bused tables in D.C. when he was a struggling young poet, and the cafe-bookstore is named in his honor). We placed our bikes in docking stations and went in for brunch.

Later we picked out four more bikes and took another circuitous route to International Drive, where a number of African and Middle Eastern embassies were holding open houses. Redocking, we took a strolling tour of South Africa, Ghana, Maylasia, Ethiopia, Egypt and a handful of other embassies; sampling the national food and culture as we went. It was sort of like Epcot, only with metal detectors.

Returning to the nearest bike share kiosk, at the Van Ness Metro, we found that all the bikes were taken. So we took the subway back to our hotel.

At first glance the bikes themselves are sort of clunky affairs, with big tires, three gears and an almost moped appearance. But they are surprisingly agile and user-friendly as urban transportation. There is a chain guard to keep your pant legs from getting snagged, fenders to deflect puddles, and a basket contraption for backpacks, purses or shopping bags. Flashing lights fore and aft help alert motorists to your presence and the broad, padded seat is comfortable enough for short hops, if not a long haul.

D.C. has more than 400 bike share stations in the metro area. New York City is getting ready to launch its bike share program with 6,000 cycles at 330 stations. In Florida, Tampa is also kicking off a bike share program, and Miami already has one.

But it doesn’t necessarily require a mega-city to make bike share work. Two college towns comparable to Gainesville — Boulder, Colo. and Madison, Wis. — have bike share operations of 200 and 350 bikes respectively.

“Bike sharing is good for cities in many ways,” says the national advocacy group Bikes Belong. “It delivers all the benefits of bicycling: by replacing car trips, it helps the environment, road congestion, the economy, parking, mobility and traffic safety ... it helps overcome barriers to using a bike in a city, such as theft and storage; it generates revenue for municipalities and private companies ... it provides branding for a city; and it introduces new audiences to bicycling.”

Gainesville ought to catch up with the times and the technology of bike sharing. As Innovation Square takes root and begins to attract more start-ups, residents and businesses to the Downtown-UF corridor, the demand for non-motorized quick trip options is only going to increase.

One thing, though: Hold the hideous yellow paint.

Ron Cunningham is the former editorial page editor of The Sun and current executive director of Bike Florida.

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