Bike Sharing Is Finally Coming to the Bay Area -- Kind Of.

Categories: bikes

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The Bike Share Stations are Coming

So bike sharing is coming to the Bay Area, albeit in a modest way. If you don't hate cyclists like the Wall Street Journal, then you're probably glad that San Francisco is catching up to other world-class cities like Paris, New York, and Chattanooga, when it comes to this easy transportation option. If you're happy to see a bike share program come to San Francisco there's at least one reason that you should be frustrated by it as well: it's just not big enough.

You Can Share, Right?

Bike sharing has been a major success in cities around the world. Paris is one famous example, and U.S. cities like Washington D.C., New York, Portland, even Madison, WI, have gotten bike share programs. Small European cities have shot up the bike-friendly rankings with widespread deployment of bike sharing stations. If you haven't ever ventured to use one of these bike sharing things here's how it works: you put your credit card in the machine, you take a bike, and you return the bike to any station you want. Simple, right?

Fees are usually paid in daily, multi-day, or yearly passes, and of course, if you don't bring the bike back, you'll just get charged for it. Usually there are penalties for checking out a bike longer than 30 minutes -- bike sharing is contingent upon bikes being used on short trips and not sitting in someone's office or garage. To account for uneven bike flow the bike sharing program usually includes trucks or vans to balance out the system by moving bikes around.

Problems With the Pilot

The problem with the San Francisco "pilot" program is that it will only have 700 bikes scattered over 70 stations, with 35 spots in the city and 35 along the Caltrain route south to Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose. This pilot will begin in this year, and will be run by Alta Bicycle Share, the same people who set up the bike share programs in Washington D.C., Boston, Chattanooga, and Melbourne. Everyone from Supervisor Scott Wiener to the area Bike Coalitions want the program expanded.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District are funding the program and they've asked for your opinion on where the stations should go on this interactive map.

It's hard to see how a bike sharing program in the Bay Area could fail, especially with commuters using BART, Caltrain, Muni, and other options to get from the South Bay to downtown to the East Bay on a daily basis. It would probably reduce car traffic, congestion, and pollution, not to mention reduce the parking load near BART and Caltrain stations.

But in order to be useful to a variety of users, there needs to be adequate market saturation. If you want to bike to work from Caltrain but there's no bike share station near your workplace, you're out of luck. Bike sharing is ideal for eliminating the "last mile" problem, which leaves public transit users a considerable distance from their final destination. If the bike sharing program puts people in the same situation, it's hard to see the niche that it will fill.

At this point, stations will be focused exclusively in the Financial District, Market Street, and the Transbay and Caltrain terminals. That means that you'll be able to get around those neighborhoods, and the tech hub cities in the South Bay, but nearly nowhere else. Luckily this is a pilot and not the final program, but it's hard to imagine that this pilot will give anyone an accurate idea of how much a full-scale deployment of the program would be used.

For context, San Francisco has a combined metro area of around 8 million and will start with 70 stations and 700 bikes. Paris with a metro area of 17 million has 1,225 stations, 18,000 bicycles, and an average ridership of 100,000 a day. The biggest bike share program in the world is in Hangzhou, which has a population of around 21 million, with 66,500 bikes at 2,700 stations.

Is this another bridge to nowhere where there isn't enough cash on hand to make infrastructure that actually works? Maybe. But just like the BART Bike blackout ban pilot, if everything goes right during this awkward growing phase, the Bay Area will probably be easier to navigate by bike in a short while.

Leif Haven is a writer and cyclist living in the Bay Area. He's can be spotted dragging himself up a hill -- literally and metaphorically.

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