The Future on Wheels

While many of Americans, struck by a flailing economy, are fretting over gas payments for their SUVs and arguing over proposed rail systems, it seems like the Europeans have outdone us yet again. New bike-sharing programs are popping up in major cities all over Europe, from Barcelona to Lyon to Rome. According to an article in the New York Times, bike-sharing has provided mayors with a simple solution to ease congestion and improve the environment. For the price of a bus, mayors can invest in a fleet of bicycles, thereby avoiding years of construction and approvals required for a subway.

By excluding access to tourists and day-trippers, the new systems function as low-cost alternate public transportation. The bike programs also feature electronic cards and computerized bike stands that speed up the process of picking up and dropping off bikes, and ease payments through deductions from bank accounts.

In Barcelona, the city's program, Bicing, has used bright red bikes for the past 18 months. The program provides 6,000 bicycles from 375 stands, which can be found every few blocks. Riders pay $30 for yearly membership and are issued a smart card to remove a bike from a mechanized dock. In Germany and Austria, most programs give members cellphone text messages with codes to unlock bikes.

Even Shanghai, a city that tried to eliminate bicycles a mere 10 years ago, opened a pilot bike-sharing program last month.

The programs are still far from perfect, however, as bike stands run out of bikes at peak hours or are full after the morning rush, leaving some to scramble for parking spots. While the kinks are being worked out, I believe it is safe to say that the programs are off to a strong start and are quickly becoming mainstream throughout Europe. I hope the U.S. catches up soon, as Washington, D.C., Montreal, Chicago, Boston and New York are currently weighing their options.