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Friday, November 5, 2010

San Francycle: How SF's Impending Bikeshare Will Work

Posted By on Fri, Nov 5, 2010 at 1:15 PM


Bikesharing: crazy, right? The expense, the hills, the repairs, the theft -- it seems like it would never, in a million years, work.

Except it does, in plenty of cities from Montreal to Budapest to Washington, D.C. And it's getting a little embarrassing that San Francisco isn't one of them.

That's why we're relieved by the news that the city is finally getting a bikeshare pilot program. Not only that, but the program will be regional, so you can pick up a bike in San Jose and ride it to Land's End. By which point you would have calves like steel cables.

Let's take a look at how exactly it'll work.

A Velib bike in Paris. - FLICKR/AUSTINEVAN

From the user's perspective, it'll likely be an easy, painless process. Just sign up ahead of time, then amble over to a pod (placed strategically around the city), swipe your credit card or RFID fob, and off you go.

The first half hour or so of the trip may be free, a practice adopted from other cities' programs to encourage short trips. In Paris, for example, the cost of the trip accelerates over time, so rather than each hour costing a certain amount it keeps doubling like a fibonacci sequence. It's not your bike, after all! Other people need to use it, too.

We're still in the early planning stages of the program, so there are still a lot of unanswered questions. What would the pods and bikes look like? Where would they be located? How does billing work?

The next phase of the preparation is to identify a vendor for the program, which will help solidify a lot of those nebulous questions. One likely candidate: Bixi, which manages the bikeshare in Montreal. Last year, the company visited San Francisco to show off their technology.

The Bay Area's new bikeshare pilot will cost around $8 million, will launch sometime around early 2012, and will last a year or two. The money's coming from a couple of sources: mostly from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (which oversees transportation around the region) and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (which oversees breathing).

Some more funding will come from each local government that participates in the program: San Francisco, Redwood City, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and San Jose.

Back in June, we chatted with Johanna Partin, the city's Director of Climate Initiatives, about bikesharing in San Francisco. At that point, a regional bikeshare program wasn't quite on the table yet, and Partin estimated that it would cost about $2 million to set up a program limited just to San Francisco.

"Half of our carbon emissions come from transportation," she said, "and most from the private sector." As clean as San Francisco air is, replacing car trips with bike trips could go a long way towards cutting even more fumes. And that could mean fewer Spare The Air days, when you're enjoined from doing everything from washing your clothes during the day to burning wood fires at night.

We'll get 500 bikes here in the city to start, increasing eventually to 2,700 spread across 50 stations.

"The number of pods is very important," said Marc Caswell at the SF Bike Coalition. Like Partin, we chatted with him in June, prompted by a visit from a European bikeshare expert. He went on, "but also location of pods is also very important. Sheer number alone won't resolve anything, but identifying hotspots that people are riding to and from is a major part of the success of the program."

Partin agreed that in bike sharing, it's all about location, location, location. "In other cities it's been a last mile strategy. So when people take Muni or Caltrain ... people often have to walk far, or it's difficult to get around."

In other words, a shared bike could be the last, fast leg of your daily commute.

Theft will obviously be an issue, but that's a problem that's been tackled in other cities. Some bikeshare programs use special custom-built parts that only work with their own bikes, making it pointless to harvest parts. Our system will have GPS and RFID tags in the frame.

So, how do we compare with other cities? Well, we're not terrible, but not fantastic either.

Basically, we're matching Denver and Melbourne.

A few months back, I went to a SPUR presentation on bikesharing with Jessica Coleman, a landscape designer at MPA Design and former recipient of U.C. Berkeley's Scott Traveling Fellowship. She's been touring the globe to inspect various bikeshare programs and shared her findings.

Denver has 500 bikes and 50 stations, she said -- but it's a very flat city,so aside from those numbers, it's hard to compare to SF. Paris has a slightly hillier topography, and will give your account a little extra credit if you leave the bike at an uphill pod.

Melbourne has 600 bikes. Minneapolis has 700 bikes and 65 stations, but they're only available from April to November.

London, on the other hand, has 6,000 bikes and 400 pods, all funded privately by Barclay's.

Europe's been doing this a lot longer than America has, and they've worked out a few kinks. But not all.

The Parisian Vélib program is crazy-expensive, with an upfront cost of $140 million. Over a thousand bikes need repairs every day, and as of this summer 8,000 had been stolen. Interestingly, some folks see stealing the bikes as a gesture of social justice: why should Paris be spending all this money on upper-class bicycles, the thinking goes, instead of giving that money to poor people? Um, okay. Nice work, Jean Valjean.

There's also a cute little "folk system" in Paris to alert fellow users to broken bikes at the pod: turn the seat of the broken bike backwards.

Amsterdam's density makes it ideal for bikes, and the city's created a lot of friendly avenues with trees and physical separation from vehicles. The bikeshare program there is widespread, with huge pods at train stations and other hubs, such as hotels.

A bit of Dutch engineering cleverness: the lock is built directly into the frame. And there's an emphasis on cargo bikes for doing errands.

"There's been three waves of bikesharing," said SFBC's Marc when we spoke to him in June. "The first one was back in Copenhagen. They said, 'We're going to paint the bikes a specific color and leave them out on the street.'" (That was in the 1960s, and it was a disaster. All of the bikes wound up in the canals.)

The second wave was a more regulated subscription system, said Marc. "And the third generation is that almost anyone can come in and use a card," employing communications networks and identity-storing cards to determine exactly where and when and who the users are.

If any city ought to be able to pull off a bikeshare, it's San Francisco. And it's especially exciting that other Bay Area counties are joining in, too. Here's hoping all the pieces come together over the next two years -- and that includes local elected leadership.

As Jessica Coleman put it, "unless the city really supports bicycles, the success is unclear."

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Matt Baume


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