Trading Four Wheels for Two
Most days my 13-year-old son, an avid snowboarder, pleads with me to drive him the half mile to the school bus. I tell him if he wants snow in the winter he’d better ride his bike. That may seem like a hazy connection. Yet U.S. automobiles and light trucks are responsible for nearly half of all greenhouse gases emitted by automobiles globally, and each of us contributes to that problem. A typical passenger vehicle emits over 11,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases each year. What does that have to do with my son’s snowboarding forays? Snowfall in Colorado’s Rockies is expected to decline 20–30 percent (and 50 percent planet-wide, on average) in the next 70 years due to climate change. While there are many other reasons to be worried about climate change, being unable to ski is certainly a good reason to leave your car at home, at least to a teenager. Fortunately, that’s getting easier to do as bike share programs sweep the nation.
Bike-share programs are ideal for short distance point-to-point trips—users can pick up a bicycle at any self-serve bike station and return it to any other bike station located within the system’s service area. Though popular in Europe since the 1990s, bike-share programs are recently gaining traction in the U.S.. At latest count there are 78 bike-share programs in U.S. cities and universities. They vary in size from Citi Bike in New York City with 10,000 bicycles, to the Spartanburg, South Carolina, program with 14 bikes. Most programs offer daily, weekly, monthly, or annual memberships, and often the first 30 to 60 minutes of each trip are free. Many bike-share programs have high-tech checkout and tracking capabilities making information available to ensure redistribution of bicycles to the most widely used stations.
Covering the Last Mile
One of the best uses of bike-share programs is the ability to use public transit, even if your stop is over a mile from your destination. The journey between a person’s home or destination and the nearest transit station, often referred to as the “last mile,” is a major factor in people’s decision to take public transportation. Bike-sharing programs can solve the last-mile problem by giving commuters the ability to bike to and from transit stops with conveniently located docking stations. This convenience alleviates climate change by making public transport much more attractive. Such last-mile initiatives that drive down vehicle usage are a key element in the transportation transformation outlined in Reinventing Fire, RMI’s roadmap to an oil- and coal-free U.S. economy by 2050.
New York City’s recently opened Citi Bike has been hugely successful. This past June, the first month of operation, cyclists took more than 528,000 trips pedaling 1.28 million miles. Some of the reasons Citi Bike has been so successful are that the majority of all trips in the city are less than three miles, the city now has a plethora of bike lanes, and many of the docking stations are located at subway and bus stops.
Even in places without a big cycling culture, bike-share programs are catching on. Chattanooga, Tennessee, is located in the “stroke belt” and has higher rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes than most of the country. The sprawling city of 170,000 does not have a culture of cycling or walking, and only a small percentage of residents use public transit. Yet in the first year of the program, Chattanooga’s 300 bicycles have recorded almost 25,000 miles traveled, avoiding over 20,000 pounds of greenhouse gases.
Beyond cities, bike-sharing goes rural
Bike-share programs aren’t only for cities. Quintessential mountain town Aspen, Colorado, recently launched We-cycle, the first rural bike-share program in the country, making 100 bikes available to locals, commuters, and tourists. “With over 100,000 visitors in the summer in Aspen,” We-cycle’s founder, Mirte Mallory, told Aspen Public Radio, “the bikes are an opportunity for our visitor community to experience town in a whole new way.” And commuters from towns down valley of Aspen now have a last-mile alternative to get to their place of work after getting off the valley-wide bus system.
And even though some people in town already own a bicycle (or two or three), We-cycle still offers appeal. Bike-share programs mean less wear and tear on your own bike, no worrying about parking or theft, and not having to bike both ways. Jesse Morris, an RMI consultant and avid biker is on the Board of We-cycle. With three of his own bicycles that he uses on a regular basis, he also has a season membership to We-cycle, taking advantage of it once to twice a week. “I don’t have to think about locking my bike,” Morris says, since the bike stations have auto-locking docks, “and if friends are visiting and we want to be able to bike around town, it’s perfect.”
We-cycle has over 200 season pass holders and logs an average 100 rides per day. In addition, there have already been requests for more bicycle stations. Morris hopes the successful program can be a model for other rural towns. Aspen is a dense town—thanks to its position in a tight mountain valley surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest—one of the reasons for the program’s success. But there are a lot of other rural communities around the world where a bike-share program could be successful. “People in mountain towns need to get around too,” Morris adds. “Just because the majority of people live in urban areas, doesn’t mean we can leave out the rural communities.”
Which brings me back to snowboarding. The Aspen Skiing Company, which runs four ski mountains in the Aspen area, realizes that climate change threatens its very existence, and so is one of We-cycle’s founding partners.
Pedaling the way to low-carbon transportation
Bike-share programs aren’t limited to Europe and North America. There are over 500 bike-share programs in 49 countries around the world. From Melbourne, Australia, to Santiago, Chile, to Hangzhou, China, (with the largest program at 66,500 bikes) people are leaving their cars at home and opting for two-wheeled transportation. And all of these programs are helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Montreal states that its bike-share program has saved over 3 million pounds of greenhouse gases, and Lyon, France, confirms its program, launched in 2005, has saved the equivalent of 18 million pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Leaving your car home just twice a week can cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 1,600 pounds each year. In fact, every mile you pedal instead of drive saves about one pound of carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, those arguments aren’t usually enough to convince my teenage son to opt for two wheels. So, with rising sea levels and diminishing snow, I guess I have to tell him if he’s not going to ride his bike he’ll have to give up snowboarding and take up surfing. As long as the beaches outlast the inexorably rising oceans, that is.