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 any Hubway station. A flashing green light confirms that a bike is firmly locked back into the dock.

Pricing for the system is pretty simple: Casual users can pay $5 for a 24-pass entitling them to an unlimited number of 30-minute trips, or $12 for a 72-hour pass. Members pay $85 for a one-year pass.

After the first 30 minutes, which are free in every plan, the fees start to go up for people who want to rent on an hourly basis. Users pay $2 for the second half-hour of a bike rental, $6 for the third half-hour, and $8 for each additional half-hour, up to a maximum of $100 per day. The point is to encourage users to return the bikes quickly, so that others can use them. “It’s not intended for the tourist bike rental market of people who ride around all day,” says Robertson. “It’s for point-to-point trips.”

The Metropolitan Area Planning Commission is working with the cities of Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville to set up Hubway stations in those cities as well. That’s a vital step, since Boston proper has a relatively small footprint that is tightly connected with surrounding communities. “Everybody knew from the beginning that a bike-share system that was only in Boston and not Cambridge and Somerville and Brookline would not be useful,” says Robertson. “It will be one unified system. You’ll be able to pick up a bike in Boston and drop it off in Cambridge, et cetera.” The stations outside Boston will likely be installed over the summer, Robertson says.

A curious Bostonian examines Hubway's Charles Circle docking station

One goal behind all bike-sharing programs is to give a convenient option to city-dwellers who are willing to brave traffic on a bike, but may not have a place to store one at home or at work. “Across the world, we have seen that bike sharing has the potential to just immediately, overnight, reach people who aren’t already biking and turn it from a niche transportation option into an actual, mainstream transportation option,” Robertson says. “In Boston, we have come a long way in the last few years. We went from being a repeat winner of Bicycling magazine’s ‘worst bike city in America’ to being awarded a silver medal from American Bicycles.”

But even Boston is still just beginning to catch up with the European cities where bike-sharing has really taken off. In countries like the Netherlands, where governments have aggressively realigned bike lanes to create more separation between automobile and bicycle traffic, 30 percent of trips nationwide and 50 percent of short urban trips are by bike, Robertson says. American cities such as Portland have been able to get 7 to 10 percent of commuters onto bikes with conventional bike accommodations such as painted lanes, but “it takes the next level of infrastructure—physical separation from traffic, separate bike signals, et cetera—to get beyond 10 percent, and we haven’t done that yet in the U.S.,” she says.

It may be even harder to raise the percentages on the San Francisco Peninsula, where the main employment and residential hubs are strung out along the 40-mile Highway 101 corridor that runs between San Francisco and San Jose. The Bay Area Air Quality Management Board’s plan calls for clusters of bike rental stations around major Caltrain stops, which could make it easier for San Franciscans who work in Silicon Valley to take the train most of the way, then use a public bike for the “last mile.” But whether there could ever be enough bikes to put a big dent in car usage is an open question. “I’m not sure if Boston or D.C. or San Francisco will ever get to the kind of density [of bike-sharing stations] they have in Paris,” says Robertson. “U.S. cities are just not willing to fund it as if it’s public transit. They’re all doing it with grants and sponsorship and things of that nature.”

That’s why Boston’s system is called the New Balance Hubway. So, heads up Silicon Valley: How about coughing up a little cash for the Google Bayway? The Cisco Cycleway? Facebike? Your employees—and the people competing with them on the freeways—will thank you for it.

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!