Excuse Me While I Move To Europe

November 10th, 2008 by owenam

Doug pointed out an article that slipped past my NYT radar: European Support for Bicycles Promotes Sharing of the Wheels. Setting aside the overwrought title, it examines the astounding success European cities have had with bike-sharing programs. I’ve been following these mostly just through headlines, and am excited to see just how successful these programs have been, and how quickly they’ve grown, since Lyon kick-started the whole thing in 2005.

The sharing plans include not just Paris’s Vélib’, with its 20,000 bicycles, but also wildly popular programs with thousands of bicycles in major cities like Barcelona and Lyon, France. There are also programs in Pamplona, Spain; Rennes, France; and Düsseldorf, Germany. [...] The shared bicycles in Barcelona, Lyon and Paris are heavily used, logging about 10 rides a day, according to officials in these cities.

If we take those numbers at face value, that’s 200,000 Parisian bike trips per day that might not have happened otherwise. And what do the cities have to show for it?

Officials in Lyon, one of the first cities to institute a large technology-driven bike program, estimate that bike-sharing has eliminated tons of pollutants since its inception in 2005. But more than that, they say, it has changed the face of the city.

“The critical mass of bikes on the road has pacified traffic,” said Gilles Vesco, vice mayor in charge of the program in Lyon. “Now, the street belongs to everybody and needs to be better shared. It has become a more convivial public space.”

(I wonder if “critical mass” was an intentional word choice, or just an artifact of translation?)

Unfortunately, that point is going to be underappreciated because there aren’t any sexy statistics to go along with it. But it’s an important one. Calmer streets are safer streets, streets that people feel more comfortable using for things like walking, shopping, and dining. That could translate into a real economic benefit — but only for an area dense enough, and with land use varied enough, to realize that benefit.

So: could this work in America? There’s a program in D.C that hopes to find out. I suspect that it can if it is targeted correctly. In Minneapolis, I’d be optimistic for such a program that focused on Downtown, Uptown, Midtown, the University and near Northeast. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, but I’m not sure that, outside of those areas, the city has the density to provide enough short bike trips to allow a sharing program to succeed.

And, regarding the picture accompanying the article — are they STILL working on that damn cathedral?!