CYCLE TO WORK—IT’S THE LAW. An outre, inverted, viridian rift on 1984, Brave New World or newly discovered chapter from an abandoned draft of Earth Abides? Nope. Try Mexico City, the present, and its Plan Verde, an ambitious eco-policy course of action initiated in 2007, which includes a bike-sharing program (Ecobici) and municipal commitment to build 186 miles of new bike paths (budgetary woes, unfortunately, have halted the path construction for now). City government workers, as part of the plan, will soon be required to bicycle to work the first Monday of each month. The city has already purchased 2,500 bikes to give away free to citizens who complete a bicycle safety course; another 1,100 bikes are actually part of the sharing program (an annual fee of 300 pesos [~$300] gives you access to the bikes).
Bike-sharing programs, both public and private, have been around for quite a while (recall Amsterdam’s famous white bicycles in the 1960s) and currently have a lot more traction in Europe, but are starting to pick up momentum in North America. In the case of sprawling, congested Mexico City, notorious for its air pollution, the program is part of its 20+ year struggle to change its ways—eliminating leaded gasoline, establishing emission standards for cars, closing particularly bad coal-fired power plants, among other ventures. But is the city past the tipping point? Is this too little, too late? Time will tell, but at least it’s a move in the right direction, a sort of noblesse oblige, which at least goes beyond mere yeah, yeah, we’re working on that platitudinous blather.
A recent brandchannel piece commented on the marketing angle of such programs: “In an effort to modernize their brands and attract tourism dollars, many cities are adopting ‘green’ campaigns aimed at reducing pollution, promoting health, and demonstrating concern for the environment.” A reality check, sure, but it’s still a plus for the environment (refer back to our post on green marketing for a refresher).
NO SURPRISE, THEFT IS ONE OF THE MAJOR HURDLES bike-sharing programs run into. Using a reliable checkout system, along the lines of library books or Zip Cars, has been one way to eliminate this. Outright malicious destruction—ah, the humanity!—seems to be another fate (brandchannel reported how bicycles in Paris’ bike-sharing program, despite success, have turned up in the Seine, hanging from lampposts, abandoned with bent wheels, etc.). Accounting for attrition, then, needs to be built in to achieve success.
In the United States and Canada, bike-sharing programs include Washington, D.C.’s Smartbike DC, Montreal’s Bixi and UC Irvine’s ZotWheels. Numerous cities are actively looking into following suit, including super bike-friendly Portland, Oregon, where I reside (Portland tried bike sharing in the 1990s, but the program was scuttled after the usual culprits, theft and vandalism, drastically diminished the fleet).
The small Oregon coastal town of Waldport (population 2,050) has had a Green Bikes bike-sharing program in place for several years now, sponsored by the Seashore Family Literacy Center, which also hosts free volutneer-run bike repair workshops. We’re only talking about 30 bikes here, but hey, the program’s a success (albeit a bike or two has turned up in Portland, more than 100 miles away!) and continues to grow, and all in a sleepy little town perhaps best known for its nearby World War II conscientious objectors camp, Camp Angel, and the camp’s Fine Arts Group that “hosted” future San Francisco Renaissance luminaries William Everson, Glenn Coffield, Martin Ponch and Kermit Sheets (see this Oregon Encyclopedia entry to learn more).
We need more Plan Verdes in more cities, unquestionably. They represent another take on public transportation that gets people out of cars and into the outdoors (okay, okay, this may actually entail dodging stinky automobiles during rush hour, but I can dream!)—consider it a tenable form of socialized health “care.” But funding—that dreadful F word to so many’s ears—for such programs is a major hurdle, especially when times are tough and city budgets are already strapped or dipping dangerously into the red. I think this warrants a strong call for sizable corporate sponsorship—go ahead and slap those logos all over the bikes; don’t we already see and accept their ubiquity when it comes to professional sports and other public spectacles.
As Kristina Dell wrote in Time last summer, “Most people don’t want to use trains, buses or bikes unless they’re really convenient, but most cities aren’t willing to spend enough to make these services convenient until enough people start using them.” To break this crazy bind, then, the push has got to come from somewhere, be it grass- or netroots citizen organized or by politicians/city leaders with moxie and/or passion for biking. It’s at least reassuring that a number of cities are already in the feasibility/request for proposal/planning stage for bike-sharing programs—may they build consensus, catch fire and lead by example.
(From “Look Ma, No Car! Pedaling Toward a Postcarbon Future” in the March/April 2010 issue of Sierra)
Of course, bicycle commuting isn’t for everyone. And most people—cyclists included—need buses and trains and, yes, cars to get around at least some of the time. But cyclists can be a catalyst in the green-transportation revolution; they fight passionately for safer infrastructure because their lives depend on it….
Here is a future we can choose to make: Towns and cities where the streets are full of cyclists pedaling to work and the sidewalks vibrant with pedestrians walking to cafes, movie theaters, and farmers’ markets. Healthier communities connected by rail lines and bus routes. A low-carbon transportation system that helps us avert a climate catastrophe.