Bicycle-sharing programs are becoming enormously popular in Europe, according to the New York Times:
The sharing plans include not just Paris’s Vélib’, with its 20,000 bicycles, but also wildly popular programs with thousands of bicycles in major cities like Barcelona and Lyon, France. There are also programs in Pamplona, Spain; Rennes, France; and Düsseldorf, Germany. Even Rome, whose narrow, cobbled streets and chaotic traffic would seem unsuited to pedaling, recently started a small trial program, Roma’n’Bike, which it plans to expand soon.
The article notes that such programs have been successful even in cities without a cycling tradition. The benefits include cleaner air, healthier citizens, time-savings for commuters, and, let’s not forget, fun a la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Having recently pedaled around Paris on a Vélib’, I can confirm that bicycling is a faster form of transportation than automobile (whether by bus, taxi, or one’s own car) and possibly even the Metro, depending on the trip.
While the District of Columbia is experimenting with a bike-rental program, New York City would seem to be an even better place to test one out, and happily this summer the Department of Transportation has expressed interest in doing so. After all, Manhattan is small—13.4 miles long, 2.3 miles wide—and has largely flat topography (the two exceptions being Morningside and Washington Heights). And during rush hour, it can be faster to walk crosstown than to take a taxi or bus. While it’s currently dangerous to ride a bike on the city’s grid, having more bikes on the road would make drivers more aware and cautious. Ideally, true bike paths would be created—of the few that currently exist, many are adjacent to parked cars, which allows a suddenly-opened door to end your ride—and life. Admittedly, any bike-sharing program in New York would be a test of how much anti-social behavior remains in the city since the bicycles can easily be vandalized and stolen (as does occur in Paris). If, however, the program turns out to be a success, it would add to the sense of mutual trust among Gothamites.
One of the less obvious reasons the article offers as to why American cities have been slow to start bicycle-sharing programs is “a preference for wearing helmets.” What the article doesn’t mention is that many places in America and Canada have mandatory bicycle helmet laws, which studies show decrease the number of riders (because of the inconvenience), while having a negligible effect on injuries. Many of the researchers who have studied the issue have concluded that the benefits of having more people get more exercise, especially at a time of rising rates of obesity, outweigh the risks to riders who go helmet-less. In fact, there’s even evidence that helmets can be outright counterproductive to their wearers: A psychologist found that cars drive closer to bicyclists who wear helmets (perhaps because they look more protected, skillful, or responsible). This chimes with the findings of “Seatbelt” Sam Peltzman, the University of Chicago economist who has argued that mandatory seatbelt laws result in people driving more dangerously because they feel safer.