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Metro Cities Give Yellow Bikes Another Go

Published October 16, 2007


LEXINGTON, KY (BRAIN)—Imagine walking out of a coffee shop and with the swipe of a card releasing a bike from a locked rack, hopping on, and then pedaling off to work.

Once there, park in a designated rack and go about your day. Each trip costs about 50 cents, and bikes are available at stations every few hundred yards.

This vision of green transportation is being explored in communities worldwide, most recently in Paris, which just introduced its public-use program called Velib.

With 10,600 bicycles stashed at 750 stations, it’s the largest program of its kind. Users can purchase a pass for a year, a week or a day, with a one-day pass costing a bit more than a dollar.

The first half-hour is free and after that minor charges are assessed for each half hour the bike is out. Major cities such as Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are exploring similar programs to ease traffic congestion in densely populated urban areas.

San Francisco has proposed bicycle stations adjacent to bus depots, making cycling a part of the city’s extensive public transportation system.

On the opposite coast, the New York Bike-Share Project has proposed a Paris-style system for Manhattan, which would feature 40,000 bicycles at 3,000 stations across the city.

During a five-day experiment offering free 30-minute rides to and from a destination in Manhattan, organizers found hundreds of supporters, many who weren’t active cyclists.

Brad Flowers, owner of Pedal Power Bike Shop in Lexington, Kentucky, said retailers stand to benefit from public-use bicycle programs. His store donates time and labor to build and repair community bikes that are part of his town’s yellow bike program.

“Anything that raises awareness for cycling and shows people that cycling can fit into today’s busy lifestyle is a plus for bike stores,” Flowers said.

“We have gotten a lot of press coverage and community support from our work with the yellow bike program.”

Not a Novel Concept. Public-use bicycle programs are nothing new and have been evolving since 1968, when Amsterdam launched the first system in Europe. However, the idea didn’t spread to the United States until the mid 1990s. Today, many cities are embracing the concept.

Portland, Oregon, had the first documented bike-share program.

Started in 1994, the Portland yellow-bike program was a grassroots effort consisting of donated bikes repained yellow and parked on the street for anyone to use.

Despite its disorganized nature, it garnered considerable press coverage and by 1997 similar programs had sprung up in Denver, Colorado, Princeton, New Jersey, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Austin, Texas.

These early public-use bicycle programs were primarily volunteer-run and used a variety of donated bicycles.

One downfall of these first-generation programs was that they lacked infrastructure. Bikes were quickly stolen, vandalized and mistreated. Additionally, concerns about liability led to the dissolution of many.

“Though the original yellow bike programs didn’t work out as planned, they created the groundwork for new programs and brought positive attention to the idea of bike-sharing,” said Alison Hill, director of development and communications at the Community Cycling Center in Portland.

Now, a decade after those first grassroots programs launched, major metropolitan areas are giving public-use bicycle systems another look.

And new technology, using a key card, credit card or cell phone account to release a bike from a specially designed rack, promises to reduce potential bike theft and vandalism.

Some Still Skeptical. Still, for every person who hails public-use bike programs as good alternative transportation, another points out its flaws.

“If yellow bike plans really worked, they’d last, but they don’t,” said Michael McGettigan, owner of Trophy Bikes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“Scores of plans have died off along with the novelty of riding a 38-pound bike that fits poorly and has a billboard riveted to it.”

McGettigan said he believes yellow bike programs hurt bicycle retailers, discourage bicycling and makes green transportation and an alternative look foolish.

However, bike-share supporters remain optimistic about their potential, citing advantages such as lower cost compared with the cost of expanding public transportation systems.

One such supporter is David Haskell, executive director of the Forum for Urban Design and founder of the New York Bike-Share Project.

“One industry expert suggests the cost to manufacture, install and maintain a program for 10 years comes to about $8,000 a bike,” Haskell said.

“The proposed New York program would cost $8 million a year. That’s a minuscule fraction of the $2.1 billion cost of the seven-line subway expansion now underway.”

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