Bikes and Business: Can Cities Cycle Their Way To Prosperity?

I’ve been in Boston this week, attending Xconomy’s big Mobile Madness conference and hanging out with my colleagues in our Cambridge, MA, headquarters. For all the debate among startup entrepreneurs about whether Boston or Silicon Valley is a better place to start a company, I’ve been reminded during my visit that Boston has a huge lead over the Bay Area in at least one respect: its public transit system. I’m without a car or a bike here, but I’ve been able to get around just fine, thanks to the MBTA’s fast and efficient subway and bus network.

And now Bostonians have access to one more convenience that’s not yet available to people in the Bay Area: a public bike sharing network. Just yesterday, the New Balance Hubway system reopened after its winter hiatus. Once the Hubway is back in full operation in a week or two, the system will have 600 bikes available for trips between any of 60 automated stations around the city. (The winter here has been so mild that the Hubway could have kept operating throughout the season. But it turns out that global weirding makes city planning a lot more difficult.)

Hubway bikes in their docks

Five Bay Area cities—San Francisco, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose—may get a similar bike-sharing system by this autumn, if the Bay Area Air Quality Management District can find a vendor to build it. (The District sent out a request for proposals on March 1.) Seattle is also discussing bike sharing, though mandatory helmet laws are a major barrier there. But for now, people in Boston and other bike-sharing cities like Melbourne, Australia, and Washington, D.C., still have bragging rights over their Seattle and Bay Area counterparts.

I bring up bicycle sharing not just because it’s spring, or because my bike is my preferred vehicle for getting around San Francisco, but because bikes are good for business. “An environment where biking is a good, comfortable option is important for attracting the types of workers that an innovation economy wants to attract,” says Jessica Robertson, transportation coordinator at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency in Boston that helped to bring the Hubway system to the city.

Having a bike sharing system can be part of a city government’s overall green initiatives, but it’s also a sign that a city leaders “just want to be on the cutting edge,” Robertson says. It can be good for property values, too. Real estate agents in Boston are already pitching proximity to a Hubway station as a neighborhood amenity in local condo and rental ads, Robertson says.

Hubway's downtown Boston locations

The Hubway system debuted in Boston last July. Like the one in Washington, D.C., it’s managed by a company called Alta Bicycle Share, using bikes and stations built by Bixi. Alta is based in Portland, OR—a city famous for its crowded bike lanes—and Bixi is based in Montréal, where the parking authority set up a non-profit called the Public Bike System Company in 2007 to reduce dependence on automobiles. These days, most of the bike-sharing system contracts that cities put out for bid are being won by the Alta-Bixi combo, according to Robertson. “It’s really top of the line in terms of the equipment,” she says. The bikes are rugged and maintenance-free, and the automated rental kiosks are “very easy to use, very frictionless from the user standpoint.”

Hubway has been likened to a cross between Zipcar and the Smarte Carte luggage cart system at airports. Here’s how it works in Boston: Users purchase an activation online or at the kiosk using a credit card. Casual users get a code that unlocks the special dock, releasing their bike; regular members get an electronic key that does the same thing. Riders can return the bikes to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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11 responses to “Bikes and Business: Can Cities Cycle Their Way To Prosperity?”

  1. Mark LowensteinMark Lowenstein says:

    Great column. Thinking about SF, two challenges come to mind. Difficult streets for biking in the “interior” of the city (narrow, hilly). And I like the thought of “last mile” for the SV corridor — one issue there is that the roads coming off highways there (El Camino, etc) are very wide, have multiple lanes of traffic going very fast — sort of highway-esque. And the distances can be significant. I think that calls for a different type of design for bike lanes, perhaps more of a “separation” between cars and bikes.

  2. JensE says:

    I visited London recently and they do have such a bicycle renting system in the city. I was amazed how many people are using the system and hooked after I tried it myself. Hope Boston will embrace it!