As the bike industry begins to meet the growing demand for practical, sensible bicycles tailored to commuting and urban outings, the time has never been better to get back that freewheelin’ feelin’.
In 1960s-era Amsterdam, white bikes could be found scattered about street corners, free for the riding. Unfortunately, the urban idealism that led to the city share program rusted faster than the bike frames; people responded to “free for the taking” but not to “returning.”
Spurred by concerns about pollution and congestion, several U.S. and European cities are now reviving the idea, with help from new technology that holds riders accountable for a bike’s return. In July, Paris and New York both introduced bike-share programs, but with different degrees of commitment. Paris rolled out 20,000 bikes to be used in perpetuity; New York made 20 avail-able for a five-day experiment. The Paris program was sponsored by the city government; the New York program was sponsored by a group of architects, planners, and designers and a nonprofit gallery.
In the United States, pay-as-you-go city car shares, like Zipcar, work on the same principal as bike shares, but have gained more traction. Zipcar reports that people who sell (or simply don’t buy) a personal automobile to join the use-only-as-needed Zipcar collective reduce their driving by up to 50 percent and utilize the “most efficient” means of transportation—including bikes—to close the gap. Heralded as a solution to parking problems, congestion, and pollution, car shares make up one wedge in the plan to reduce the number of vehicles on the road (itself a small slice of the global warming puzzle), but they are hardly a solution to all our problems.
But don’t hang your head just yet. Even Byron, our bicycle expert, still owns a car. The biggest impediment to a robust bike culture in the United States is the lack of infrastructure to support enjoyable bike commutes. That will require a critical mass—and not necessarily
a heated mob swarming city streets for a renegade Friday commute—to decide that biking is a way to take control of, and enjoy, your life. While the car is at the core of American culture, so too is the pursuit of happiness. As Byron says, “When you don’t have to sit in traffic, or circle a parking lot just to get a cup of joe, you begin to realize how liberating bikes are.”