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Does L.A. Need a Bike Sharing Program?

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A bike sharing rack in Taipei, Taiwan

Every once in awhile it's nice to step outside the public transit rhetorical war zone of Los Angeles and see what other cities are up to. After all, CicLAvia came to Los Angeles after a few thoughtful Angelenos went down to Colombia and saw what the city of Bogota was up to. As it happens, I'm visiting my folks in Boston right now--a city that just launched a comprehensive public bike program. I tried the system out yesterday and here's my report.

First, a primer on how the system works. Public bike racks are installed every half-mile or so in busy portions of the city. Each rack is stocked with about a dozen three-speed cruisers. All have baskets in front large enough to secure a full grocery bag. To get access to the bikes, you need to become a "member," which costs $60. Once you're a member you can rent the bikes by the hour. Any ride under a half-hour is free. It's about a dollar per hour from there. If you're just visiting, like myself, you can rent a bike for 24 hours for five bucks.

You give the machine your credit card, it gives you a code, and you get access to all the bike racks in the city. You punch in your code into an electronic keypad on the rack, take your bike, and return it to any open rack when you're done. You can take out and return a bike as many times as you need during that 24 hours.

I purchased a 24-hour pass last Sunday night while coming home from a movie at around 1 a.m.--after the subway stops running. I have to say, it was friggin' great. I rode three miles home in about 10 minutes and went fast enough that the swarms of evening mosquitoes couldn't catch me.

The next night, my sister called to meet me for dinner. I walked one block up the street, picked up a bike, and was at the restaurant in 15 minutes. It would have taken me three times that long to walk. When I got there, I found out the restaurant was closed for a private party. Bummer. If I had walked I'd be livid. But because I had the bike, my sister and I were able to meet up with friends at a different restaurant four miles away. We never would have made it otherwise. Riding the subway would have required two transfers and would have taken at least an hour.

After dinner, I picked up another bike and rode home. A great time.

There are a few downsides. The biggest one: they don't give you a helmet. Boston, like Los Angeles, has its share of crazy drivers. As I was riding one of the bikes last night, a young woman pulled up dangerously close next to me in her car and yelled out the window, "Wear a helmet!"

"I don't have one," I yelled back as she drove off. I caught up with her at the next stoplight where she responded, "Buy one."

The light turned green before I had the chance to yell back at her, "I'm just visiting the city and helmets are expensive." I later learned that the city has partnered with various retailers to offer $8 helmets for bike share users. Not bad. Still, that's more then I'm prepared to shell out for a day's use.

Which brings me to my next point. The system ain't cheap. Five bucks can get you pretty far on the bus, without the risk of agro drivers. And for the cost of a $60 membership you can get your own bike on Craigslist. Also, the system takes a $101 deposit every time you rent a bike. Not everyone has that kind of cash handy.

On top of that I found that bike racks in especially busy locations are often full. The system has a smart phone app to tell you which racks are full and which one you should use in their stead. But if you don't have a smart phone, as I don't, the situation can cause a fair amount of frustration--and miles of riding around aimlessly and walking.

Overall though, I greatly enjoyed my experience in Boston. Their system needs some improvements, but I'll definitely use it again next time I visit.

As it currently stands, Los Angeles has no plans to install a similar system. That could change soon. After my experience in Boston, I think we need to seriously think about bike sharing. During working hours, public transportation is decent in LA. But at night, that service tends to become irregular and unpredictable. And taxis are expensive. Nothing worse than eating a $40 taxi ride after your bus doesn't show up for a hour. That threat forces many of us into taking their cars. Bike sharing could help fill that void between the daytime commute and getting home after grabbing dinner or checking out a show. It could provide a psychological safety net that would make more people feel comfortable taking public transit to work, knowing they had another option to get home, or get to the restaurant of their choice, or meet up with friends if they're feeling spontaneous.

Plus it's fun. We all have sudden fits where we crave exercise or some kind of thrill. This system allows you to take advantage. You don't have to carry around locks, or lights. All that is taken care of. If you get tired of riding, you can find the nearest bike dock and take the bus home.

If LA were to set up a similar system, I think we would have to create some kind of program where low income users could use the bikes for free. Also, it would be great if the bikes could somehow be tied into Metro's TAP card program. Instead of charging separate membership fees for the bike system, pass holders could use the bikes as part of their monthly dues. To ensure the bikes don't go missing for days on end, Metro could charge additional fees for users who take the bikes out for longer than an hour or two.

Given the response to CicLAvia and the recent passing of LA's bike plan, there's no question Angelenos are clamoring for more ways to get on the road and ride. Bike sharing is a great way to help that happen.


The L.A. Vitamin Report is a column about quality of life issues by Matthew Fleisher. It is brought to KCET's SoCal Focus blog in partnership with Spot.Us, which receives support from the California Endowment.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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