As an architect and planner with the Oregon-based Alta Bicycle Share, Saratoga Springs resident Jeff Olson helps manage some of the largest bicycle share systems in the country.
Last week, Alta celebrated the launch of a massive new bicycle share program in New York City. The company also runs bike share systems in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chattanooga, Tenn., and will roll out a new bike share program in Chicago later this month.
A bike share program is a network of bicycles that riders can pick up and drop off at self-service docking stations located throughout an urban area. These programs are used for a variety of reasons, such as short trips, commuting, tourism and recreation.
“Bike share programs are a rapidly growing sector of transportation,” said Olson, a principal in both Alta Bicycle Share and a sister company, Alta Planning + Design. “There are a lot of interesting things happening, and it’s not just in large cities.”
Despite this surge in interest, Olson and other local cycling advocates aren’t sure a bike share program would work in the Capital Region, though Olson was optimistic. He said smaller cities pose certain challenges, such as fewer users, but lower-cost, smaller-scale bike share systems are becoming increasingly feasible because technological advances make it easier to develop programs for less-populated areas.
Other cycling advocates said that in order for the Capital Region to support a bike share program, the region would have to make cycling more of a priority. They said the area currently lacks the bike-friendly infrastructure that cities with good bike share programs have invested in; in recent years, they noted, New York City has built more than 300 miles of bicycle lanes.
“Those of us who live up here know that the Capital Region cities are not well connected,” said Paul Winkeller, president of the board of directors for the New York Bicycling Coalition, a statewide advocacy group. “Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to bike safely between Albany, Schenectady and Troy. It’s not like the road infrastructure is very accommodating.”
As a result, “I don’t see it being feasible to have a bike share program here,” said Winkeller, who lives in Bethlehem. “I don’t think of this as a region that’s ready for regional bike share. We would need massive improvements to the road system to accommodate people who want to bike safely. A lot would have to happen. There would have to be a groundswell of interest from the public, and a lot more interest and commitment on the part of city leadership and planning departments.”
Lorenz Worden, a member of the Albany Bicycle Coalition, believes a bike share program could work in the Capital Region, but in individual cities, rather than regionally.
“Within downtown Schenectady, I could see it being feasible,” Worden said. But “I can’t envision a scenario where someone would pick up a bike in Schenectady and ride it to Albany and then to Troy,” he said. “If you’re enough of a cyclist to ride between the three cities, you’ve probably already got a bicycle.”
Worden and others said the Capital Region has become a more bike-friendly place in recent years.
They pointed to projects such as the Schenectady Bike Link Project, which will create a bike/pedestrian link connecting Central Park, Vale Park and downtown Schenectady, and the Saratoga Greenbelt Trail, a 10-mile loop connecting three existing hiking and walking trails. In addition, a new, multi-use shared lane across the Western Gateway Bridge, which links Schenectady to Scotia, will connect bicycle and pedestrian paths on both sides of the Mohawk River.
Steve Strichman, zoning officer for the city of Schenectady, said the Western Gateway Bridge and Schenectady Bike Link projects will make it easier for people to bike in the city and access the bike trail at Schenectady County Community College. Ideally, the city will have a mix of on- and off-road bike trails that are safe and easy to use, he said.
Strichman said it was difficult to envision a bike share program in Schenectady. “Downtown is fairly compact and walkable,” he said. “If people want to bike, they probably have a bike. I think you’re more likely to see car shares here than bike shares.”
Winkeller said the New York Bicycling Coalition’s main goal is getting more people to ride bikes safely, and that the group is focused on advocating for better signs and bicycle lanes, as well as enforcement of road rules and education for drivers and cyclists. The group is a big proponent of Complete Streets legislation, which requires roadway design to consider the needs of cyclists, mass-transit users and pedestrians, as well as cars. Some municipalities have passed their own Complete Streets laws, but the NYBC is pushing for a statewide law.
“Right now, bicycling is really popular,” Winkeller said. “People are focused on having an active lifestyle and obesity reduction.”
Doug Haller, a member of the Saratoga Springs bicycling advocacy group Bikeatoga, said that more people are biking in Saratoga Springs.
“Things are moving in the right direction,” he said.
Haller said Bikeatoga’s members would love to see a bike share program in the city, but that it was difficult to predict whether it would succeed. “I don’t know whether it would work in a little town like Saratoga,” he said. He suggested tourists might enjoy using a bike share program during the summer. “I’m sure some tourists would love to tap into that and be able to bike to the park or the racetrack,” he said.
Worden said the narrow, older streets of the Capital Region’s cities make it harder to create bike-friendly routes.
“You cannot change the width of those streets,” he said. He also said driving remains the social norm, and city planners tend to be more focused on ensuring that there are enough parking spaces. “People expect publicly financed parking spaces,” he said. “That limits the options.”
Even so, bicycling is becoming more mainstream, Worden said.
“People see biking as a good thing,” he said. “And bicycle manufacturers are catching on. They see that there’s a tremendous market for people who want bicycles that are comfortable and high-quality, with fenders and a place to hang a bag.” In the past, bicycle manufacturers were focused on selling bikes to hard-core cyclists, rather than ordinary people who simply wanted to ride a bike for fun or transportation, he said.
He added, “I think the best thing you can do to promote cycling is to get cyclists out in the street riding bicycles.”
New York City is now home to the largest bike share program in the country, Citi Bike.
Named for the program’s corporate sponsor, Citi Bike is run by a New York City-based company called NYC Bike Share; Alta Bicycle Share is NYC Bike Share’s parent company. According to Olson, running Citi Bike involves maintaining the network’s software, which keeps track of where the bikes are located and who is using them, and overseeing a network of employees who move bicycles from station to station as needed.
Citi Bike comprises 6,000 bicycles and more than 300 docking stations in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Olson said the program will grow in phases, and will eventually total between 20,000 and 30,000 bicycles. The bikes themselves are pretty durable — they’re designed to be easy to ride and hard to damage.
To access Citi Bike, people can become long- or short-term members. They can sign up for memberships at any station kiosk with a credit card, or obtain an annual membership by enrolling online. An annual membership costs $95, a 7-day membership costs $25 and a 24-hour membership costs $9.95.
The New York City Bike Share website touts the growing numbers of bicyclists on the city’s streets.
“Today, cycling has never been safer in New York City,” the website explains, noting that “bike counts on key routes have more than doubled” since 2007, while “cycling injuries and fatalities have fallen or remained flat. Overall, the risk of injury to cyclists in New York City has decreased by 75 percent since 2000.”
The New York City bike share program did hit some snags, and its opening, originally scheduled for summer 2012, was delayed. Olson said getting the software and technology running posed a challenge, given the size of the system, and Hurricane Sandy damaged a warehouse full of bicycles.
Olson predicted that interest biking in the Capital Region would continue to grow.
“It’s great to see more people riding bikes,” he said. “Maybe now we’re catching up to a trend that has been moving quicker in some other places. … It’s amazing to think that places like Times Square are now pedestrian plazas. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.”