This Green Life
A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

JUNE 2013: Bike share programs combat car traffic, carbon emissions, air pollution and obesity without straining city coffers. What's not to like?

Coming soon to a city near you

From the hoopla surrounding the recent launch of New York's bike share program, called CitiBike, you could be excused for thinking it was more groundbreaking than it was. It is a great idea, but not a new one.

Public transit by bike—for that is what bike-sharing amounts to—was introduced to America by the District of Columbia back in 2008—practically an eon ago in bike share terms. Then came programs in another 30-odd towns, from Oklahoma City to Chattanooga, before New York got in the game. Scads more are expected before year's end.

One could almost say bike-sharing has become as American as apple pie, except it originated in Europe (the Netherlands, to be exact) and has taken off there even more rapidly than in the U.S.

In fact, bike-sharing has become a global phenomenon with some 500 services on every continent but Antarctica. As for scale, no program beats the one in Hangzhou, China, though New York's is the largest in North America.

The main reason municipalities around the world are so gung-ho about it is that bike-sharing offers a way to expand a city's transportation options and alleviate traffic at relatively low cost. It also enables people to bike to and from the bus and train, which helps cities get more value from existing public transit.

The environmental benefits of bike-sharing are equally attractive. By replacing a portion of trips that would otherwise be made by car with pollution-free bike trips, it cuts smog and global warming emissions. In addition, by lessening traffic, it reduces idling, which cuts emissions even more.

Lastly, bike-sharing boosts public health by shifting people from passive to active transportation. Regular cycling, even at a slow pace for just a mile or two, improves heart health, muscle tone and coordination, reduces stress and helps keep weight under control. Studies conclude that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks from accidents and exposure to air pollution.

Here in the U.S., programs typically offer annual or seasonal memberships. In New York, which may have the most expensive program, the cost of a membership is $95 a year for an unlimited number of 45-minute trips. For trips that take longer, members pay an additional fee. The surcharge starts small and escalates to keep trips short and bikes in circulation, as the program is not designed for recreational or long-distance biking but transit.

In the majority of programs, bikes are parked at docking stations scattered around the service area and members receive an electronic key to unlock them. Riders can take bikes from any station and return them to any other. (Some cities redistribute bikes by truck to help guarantee availability throughout the system.) Non-members can purchase short-term passes at the self-serve kiosks located at every station. Kiosks are often solar-powered.

Another type of bike share system, pioneered by Social Bicycle and used in Hoboken's new program, dispenses with docking stations by putting all the technology, including GPS trackers, in the bikes themselves. People can park at regular bike racks and use computers or mobile devices to locate nearby bikes. This type of system is an even less expensive option for cities and may prove to be the model for the future.

Bike share bikes tend to come with lights, bells and baskets, but not with helmets. The logistics of providing them have proven too difficult to date (rented helmets pose a sanitation problem). Most programs do not even require that helmets be worn by adults. The requirement is considered too high a bar to use, and only partly because people would have to bring their helmets with them. There is also a psychological issue. Mandating helmets would suggest that cycling is a dangerous activity, which is the last thing bike share programs want to do.

Of course, riders are always free to wear helmets, and no one is saying they shouldn't. But some researchers do say it's better for your health and longevity to ride without a helmet than to take those trips by car.

So, think about trying bike-sharing when it comes to your town for all the environmental and health reasons mentioned above. If you haven't cycled on city streets before and are a bit daunted by the prospect, consider taking an urban biking class first. CitiBike offers free introductory classes and other programs may do so, as well. You might also want to plan your route in advance. (Not all roads are equally accessible to bikes.)

When you finally set out, stay alert, just the way you would when driving a car. But also relax. These bikes are not built for speed. They are designed for durability and safety, with the general public in mind.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

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On This Topic

CitiBike docking station in New York
NEW YORKERS SEEM TO BE LOVING the new CitiBike service. Miles pedaled hit the one million mark by June 22nd, less than a month into the program, and the number of riders topped 385,000. See the latest stats on the CitiBike blog.

HAND SIGNALS are how bike riders communicate their intention to turn or stop. Learn these signals, whether you're a rider, driver or pedestrian, for everyone's safety.

Video courtesy of broadbandsports

THE WORLDWIDE GROWTH of bike share programs has been meteoric. In 10 years the number rose from 7 to 497. Of these, 352 are located in Europe. See the full-sized chart.

Chart: Statista; Data source: MetroBike.


International Business Times
The World's Largest Bike-Share Programs

The Bike-sharing World Map

The Atlantic Cities
Is Bicycle Commuting Really Catching On? And If So, Where?

The New York Times
To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets

The New York Times
Bike Sharing Can Mean Safer Biking

How the Dutch Watch out for Cyclists

League of Illinois Bicyclists
Safety Quiz for Cyclists & Motorists

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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.
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