Friday, April 29, 2016

Bike Share

One of City of Houston's Bike Share Stations

I have been trying to consistently ride 400 miles a month, and had succeeded for the past six months, but will not reach that goal in April. One big reason is a ten day trip to Boston. Although I was able to do almost no cycling on that trip, the one ride I did, though a mere three miles, allowed me to try Bike Share for the first time. Just outside our hotel was a Bike Share station, I had a free morning, so walked over to it with some trepidation, carefully read the directions, inserted my credit card, and the next thing I knew, I was going for a ride. The process looked like this:



The way bike share works pretty much everywhere is that you have to be a member to use the bikes, but once you are a member, you can use the bikes for free as many times as you want. On the other hand, you can only use a bike for a short period of time before you are charged a usage fee. In Boston, that period of time is 30 minutes. To facilitate the use of bicycles by out-of-towners like me, it is possible to purchase a one day membership. So, the first receipt above, for $6, is for a one day membership. Then, being a member, I requested a bike. The system gives me a number, shown on the second "receipt", which I used to unlock a bike. I now had 30 minutes to use it for free before I would be charged a user fee. As can be seen on the third receipt, I returned the bike after 24 minutes, and was charged nothing. During those 24 minutes, I rode a grand total of 3 miles, as shown on the map below:

The above map was generated by Map Pedometer. The blue balloons labelled with "1", "2", and "3" are mile markers. the red balloon marks the Bike Share station where I began and ended my ride. The yellow balloon marks a shopping area I had visited the day before.

What did I think of my ride? The bike was clunky and slow, not any bike I would ever purchase for myself. On the other hand, I had walked a small part of this route the day before, and the difference in convenience between walking and biking was night and day; riding was much faster and much less tiring. The day before, I had needed to visit a bank to get cash and a liquor store to pick up wine I was contributing to a group dinner that night. There was a bike share station right near the bank, so what I should have done in retrospect was to pick up a bike, ride it to the bike share near the bank, turn in the bike (so I was no longer responsible for it being stolen and was not at risk of exceeding my 30 minutes,) do my business, pick up a bike at that same station and ride it back to the station near my hotel. That is how bike share is meant to be used. Had I had time to visit some sites in downtown Boston, I could have similarly used Bike Share to get to and from those sites.

That ride did give me an opportunity to experience a bit of Boston's bike infrastructure. At the end of my epic ride, I accidentally got on some rather busy streets with no bike infrastructure, a survivable but not particularly pleasant experience, but for the bulk of the ride I was on dedicated bike lanes, with short stretches of "shared" lanes. This is what the bike lane looked like:


In Houston, I have opined that so-called "shared" lanes are pretty much useless. Somehow they seemed slightly less useless in Boston, perhaps because they clearly served a bridge function. Drivers were used to the dedicated bike lane, so when they see the shared lane, they saw it as a part of the same infrastructure, a more difficult stretch where more caution is required, but a place where bicycles clearly have a place. Adding to this is the street sign stating that bicycles may use the full lane. This is the more modern, clearer version of "Share the Lane" or "Bicycle Route", one which I feel is a huge improvement and would love to see in Houston. The sign can be seen in the upper right corner of the picture below:


In addition to visiting Boston, we visited Montréal on this trip. Montréal also has a bike share program, but we did not have the opportunity to try it. We did, however, get to see a bit of Montréal's bike infrastructure as well as evidence of the toughness of its cycling community. Although our trip took place in April, we experienced late season snowstorms in Both Boston and Montréal. My last two pictures show a protected bike lane in Montréal and a hardy cyclist using the same mid-snowstorm:



So what do I think about all of this? What relevance does it have to my cycling, to cycling in Houston? Houston just finished its first protected bike lane downtown, but I have yet to try it. Similarly, Houston has a Bike Share program which I have also yet to try. I definitely have plans to try both of these, and will describe my experiences here when I do. However, if I try Houston's Bike Share, I expect it to be just an experiment, I have yet to imagine a scenario in which Houston Bike Share would be useful to me. One obvious reason for that is there is neither a bike share station close to my home nor is there one near any place I go routinely. Our Bike Share system is expanding, will that expansion make it useful to me? I am skeptical that it will. It turns out that the lack of stations is a red herring; the reasons I don't use bike share have little or nothing to do with the location of the stations. Rather, the reasons I am unlikely to use Bike Share are pretty much the same as the reasons I do little utility cycling in general, why all my cycling is recreational. I have attempted utility cycling. I have done some grocery shopping by bike, and when I have needed to go into Texas Medical Center where I volunteer, I have tried biking there as well. In both cases, after having experimented with biking, I have returned to using my car. Interestingly, my wife routinely commutes to work in the very same Texas Medical Center by bicycle. What makes the difference? It all comes down to routine and details. Because my wife commutes every single day, she has been able to develop a routine that works for her. On the flip side, the cost of commuting by car every day is substantial, giving her strong motivation for cycling. Because she is commuting first thing in the morning, the sweltering Houston heat is less of a factor. In terms of details, she has the good fortune of not sweating very much, and where she would have to park is rather inconvenient. For me, I average two trips to the Medical Center a month, so the $10 I pay each time for parking is less of an issue, where I park is very close to where I could leave my bicycle, and I go later in the day which, combined with my tendency to sweat profusely, creates social issues. In terms of groceries, I tend to shop as rarely as possible and then I stock up, purchasing many more groceries than I could carry by bike. Thus, utility cycling just doesn't work for me, and nothing about Bike Share would change that.

Interestingly, I have direct experience as to how things might be different. Thirty eight years ago, my wife and I did not yet have children and had just moved into a new apartment. We had a very old car which we rarely used, so when it stopped running, we never got around to fixing it. A couple of years later when we purchased our first home, got ready to start a family, and began serious commuting, we paid to have that old car towed away and purchased two new VW Rabbits. However, for those few years, we managed completely without a car. My wife walked to work, and I bicycled. When I needed groceries, I walked to a nearby market. We never actively decided to live without a car, it just happened. Under the pressure of two intense careers, the car just didn't make sense. I could imagine if we lived in downtown Houston where a car was more trouble and where running errands and commuting were more convenient, we might decide to live without a car, and Bike Share might become an important part of getting around. Similarly, protected bike lanes might make downtown cycling acceptably safe. Bike Share might not work for me today, but that does not mean it is not useful to people in different circumstances. The steady deployment of Bike Share and its heavy use where it is deployed suggest that this is the case. In any case, I am glad I got to give it a try, and look forward to trying our home town version, even if just to satisfy my curiousity.