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Bountiful bikes: Can a share program get more people cycling around cities?

Bicycling brings many benefits over driving a car: a workout, less pollution and lower carbon dioxide emissions. So, why is it that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2007 American Community Survey, only 0.5 percent of Americans rely on two wheels to get to work?

The answer is likely a combination of obstacles: convenience, culture and collisions.

A new system in Montreal now expanding to other big cities may address at least the first two issues. Scattered among 300 cyclist stations throughout Montreal are 3,000 bikes, each ready and waiting for its next rider. Now, plans are under way for a similar bounty of bikes in Boston, according to The New York Times. And additional biking infrastructure—including new bike lanes—could also help cities overcome the third obstacle.

"We developed this product for Montreal," André Lavallée, a Montreal politician, told the Times in May. "But we were very convinced that it's good for any city."

The Bixi bicycle-sharing system offers a menu of high-tech tools. Stations for parked bikes are solar-powered and WiFi-enabled, allowing them to be placed anywhere in the city without need for an electrical connection. This also means they can be easily relocated when demand patterns change—or the snow starts to fall. And users can go online to see the whereabouts of available bikes and parking spaces.

The bikes themselves—fully equipped with everything from LED headlights and tail lights to three-speed hub gear and bell—are "designed to minimize damage from vandals, to thwart parts thieves and to keep rolling with the minimum of maintenance rather than for lightness or speed," the Times reported. Riders can simply scan their credit card and pedal away.

But convenience isn't the only barrier to biking in Boston. The city suffers from a confusing array of old narrow streets and notoriously aggressive drivers, which combine to generate high rates of bike accidents—from cyclists colliding with moving cars to car doors opening into bike lanes. (The author has personal experience with being "doored" in the city.)

In contrast, the model city for accommodating biking is Portland, Ore., where 300 miles of protected bike lanes inspire riding rates about eight times that of the national average, according to The Boston Globe.

"Skeptics wonder whether Portland is just filling a niche and attracting bicyclists from elsewhere, instead of changing the habits of residents," reports the Globe. Others see the nature-nurture argument for city cycling differently, including Rex Burkholder, a Portland Metro Councilor and former Boston resident. As he told the Globe, "It's facilities that make people switch over, not philosophy."

Now, Boston is working to emulate its West Coast cousin, adding miles of bike lanes to go with the upcoming introduction of the Bixi System (as soon as next summer).

Other cities are keeping watch as their own bike cultures evolve. In New York City, for example, biking is the "fastest growing mode of transportation," City Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan told Newsday. Over the past decade, the number of New Yorkers cycling has climbed 80 percent while the number of accidents has dropped by more than 40 percent. In addition to some added bike lanes, many attribute this improved safety to the sheer numbers. "It's like a snowball effect," Noah Budnick, a senior policy adviser for the Transportation Alternatives advocacy group, told Newsday. "The more cyclists there are on the street, the more drivers are aware of them and are looking for them."

With an additional couple thousand borrowable bikes cruising Boston's minefield of paved-over cow paths, perhaps the same safety in the herd will take effect.


Picture of bikes along Boston's Charles River by gkristo via Flickr

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