It's a good time to be a cyclist in America.
New York kicked off a new bike-sharing program this week, with Chicago and San Francisco both close behind. Those cities are expected to launch similar systems this summer.
The sharing programs are all check-in, check-out systems, with automated stations spread throughout a city, designed for point-to-point trips. "We try to encourage people to use it ... almost like a taxi," says Gabe Klein, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Klein helped start Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C. — the largest bike-share system in the U.S. until New York took over the title. He is also overseeing Chicago's Divvy bike share program. He spoke with weekends on All Things Considered host Wade Goodwyn about the future of biking in American cities.
On encouraging more people to ride
"When it doesn't feel as safe, the people that are riding are what we call the strong and the fearless, and they make up about 7 percent. What we have found is that 60 percent of the population would like to ride. The problem is they don't feel safe. And those are the people that we're appealing to with the infrastructure that we're putting in here in Chicago or that you've seen in Washington, D.C., protected bike facilities that separate people from cars, and with the bike-sharing program."
On reducing traffic
"You know 40 percent of trips in urban areas are 2 miles or less, but 90 percent of those trips are taken in a car. So, you can do the math, you know. If we can move 20, 30 percent of those people to walking or biking that frees up a lot of capacity for people to drive that need to."
On the future of bike sharing
"The more density the better, but, having said that, you also have universities embracing bike sharing, you have less dense cities like Portland launching bike sharing and Houston, right there in Texas. So, it's across the board, and I think as cycling becomes more mainstream, you're going to see it roll out in very different environments."
WADE GOODWYN, HOST:
It's a good time to be a cyclist in America. New York kicked off a new bike-sharing program this week with Chicago and San Francisco close behind. We thought we should hear from some bikers themselves, so we camped out at one of Washington's Capital Bikeshare stations as people checked bikes in and out.
MICHAEL MARGOLIS: Plug it in there. Easy as that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARGOLIS: My name is Michael Margolis(ph). I'm a law student at George Washington. Parking is so difficult, and Capital Bikeshare has allowed me just to take - go anywhere on the fly. I'm 10 minutes away from everywhere - law school, going shopping.
KATRINA GORDON: Going home after the bars at night, going to work.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GORDON: Katrina Gordon. It's magical. You have the breeze in your hair.
MALINA CHRISTOPH: My name is Malina(ph) - or Malina - I think you would say, Malina Christoph(ph). We are from Germany and just visiting Washington. We walked around yesterday by foot, and we saw many people riding a bike. And so that gave us the trust to feel like we could do the same.
LAUREN WEINSTEIN: It's gotten better. And you'll be like, oh my God, this bike lane exists that I had no idea it's here. And then other times, you're like, there's no way. It's, like, so fragmented. And my name is Lauren Weinstein.
ROSS MOHAN: Ross Mohan(ph). I work in the computer industry. Despite the traffic getting worse, the drivers seem to be more conscious of different types of traffic on the road. So it's turning up.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEYS JINGLING)
MOHAN: And now, I engage the work drive. You have a good day.
GOODWYN: Washington has become a much easier place to bike recently. The city was named the fourth most bike-friendly city in America by Bicycling magazine last year. Gabe Klein, now with the city of Chicago, was a big part of that change. He was the director of the Department of Transportation in D.C. and oversaw a big increase in bike lanes.
Klein was inspired by Montreal's successful bike share, and in 2010 helped launch Capital Bikeshare. Klein says they forecasted 500,000 rides that first year and ended up with a million. Klein described how it all works.
GABE KLEIN: Each location where the bikes live is what we would call a node - somewhere between six and, you know, 30 bikes. We try to push people to use it for almost like a taxi, you know, for transit-type trips, not to keep it all day.
GOODWYN: Well, I lived in New York for seven years, and I'm here in Washington, D.C. And I see cyclists on the road, but they look like daredevils to me. Who rides bikes in a place filled with automobiles?
KLEIN: When it doesn't feel as safe, the people that are riding are what we call the strong and the fearless, and they make up about seven percent. What we have found is that 60 percent of the population would like to ride. The problem is they don't feel safe. And those are the people that we're appealing to with the infrastructure that we're putting in here in Chicago or that you've seen in Washington, D.C. - protected bike facilities that separate people from cars and with the bike-sharing program.
GOODWYN: How much pushback do you get from people who are nothing but annoyed when they see bikers sharing their road?
KLEIN: You know 40 percent of trips in urban areas are two miles or less. But 90 percent of those trips are taken in a car. So you can do the math. You know, if we can move 20, 30 percent of those people to walking or biking, that frees up a lot of capacity for people to drive that need to.
GOODWYN: There's a criticism that, you know, the only ones who use this are hipsters and gentrifiers and that this is money - I won't say wasted - but focused on this demographic. What do you say to that criticism?
KLEIN: We're very concerned with the equity issue, and that's one of the reasons that we're building protective facilities throughout this city, not just in certain neighborhoods. There's a study that came out by the League of American Cyclists and the Sierra Club that shows that there's been a 100 percent growth in the percent of trips by bike from 2001 to 2009 by African-Americans, 50 percent in Hispanic and only 22 percent in whites.
GOODWYN: But with the - the nodes really aren't in black communities here in D.C. They're more in the hipster enclaves.
KLEIN: Well, no, we were very careful with that. I mean, let's be honest. The more density, the busier those stations will be. But we did launch stations across the river in southeast. I believe we started with eight or 10 stations. They weren't as busy. But it's important to market the service to everybody. And part of marketing the service in the African-American community was actually to have the service in the community because, again, everybody needs transportation.
GOODWYN: Is there a density issue? Do you have to have a certain density to make this work, or can it work in places like Dallas or St. Louis, or it's much more suburban? Is there a rule of thumb?
KLEIN: The more density, the better. But having said that, you also have universities embracing bike sharing. You have less dense cities like Portland launching bike sharing and Houston right there in Texas. So it's across the board, and I think as cycling becomes more mainstream, you're going to see it roll out in very different environments.
GOODWYN: We've been talking with Gabe Klein. He is the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation. Gabe, thanks so much.
KLEIN: Oh, thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.