Boston’s Bike Sharing Myth, And China

Bike sharing programs have been popping up in major cities all over the world throughout the past few years, and for good reason. When thoughtfully designed, they’re really a brilliant idea. For those who are unfamiliar, these programs establish bike stations in dozens of locations throughout a city allowing city residents and visitors to rent a bike using a credit card or membership pass from a automated machine. Once rented, a bike is unlocked from the station, and the user is free to ride the bike anywhere in the city, and then return it to any other station. There’s no worrying about locking the bike up, or bringing it back to the initial rental location – it’s really a carefree, cheap, and fast way to get around.

I had heard about successful programs offered in Paris, Stockholm, and Barcelona, and then I finally tried one out in Montreal last spring. And it was great. So when I returned from Montreal, I was excited to learn that Boston was in the process of implementing its own bike share program. Eager for it to be up and running, I recently looked into the schedule. And through a number of articles and press releases, here’s what I found:

-In April 2008, Boston hired a “Bike Czar” to create/improve bike lanes and implement a bike sharing program.

-Sixteen months later, in August 2009, a bike share program vendor was selected.

There was even talk of Boston having the first bike sharing program in the states, as the system was set to launch in the Spring of 2010.

-Spring 2010 came, and the “Bike Czar” was mysteriously quiet. Then finally, in July 2010, Boston received a $3m federal grant to fund the program. This sounded great, until I learned that it meant the city would be required to scrap the previous plans and solicit bids from new vendors.

Now there are rumors of a program with 500-1,000 bikes being launched “sometime in 2011,” but there still hasn’t been an official announcement or press release from the city. What’s taking so long? It’s been nearly three years. Is it actually going to happen this year?

Which brings me to my real question, the reason I’m writing this post: How is China so quick to do everything? I’ve never been to China, but I’m planning to go to Guangzhou for a couple weeks in March to work on a graduate project. So I was intrigued to learn this morning from this article that Guangzhou just won a sustainable transport prize for having an impressive combination of interconnected bus routes, train lines, and bike paths. A key component of the system is the city’s new bike share program. So I looked into the history:

-In May 2010, city officials spoke to consultants about implementing a bike share program.

-In June 2010, the bike program was launched.

Really? One month? Granted, it took a few months for the city to ramp the program up from 2,000-3,000 bikes to 10,000, which they finally achieved in October 2010. But come on! It’s taken Boston nearly three years to almost implement a program with 500-1,000 bikes. I will give Boston credit for significantly improving the bike lanes throughout the city over the past few years. But I find it hard to imagine that Guangzhou had a perfect system of bike lanes prior to this recent launch.

I won’t make any broad political statements, or try to tie this into last night’s State of the Union speech on competitiveness. But we could probably learn a thing or two from China.

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