Recent Advances in Bikeshare Systems from Miami Beach to Washington, DC

Bikeshare systems bring a number of economic and environmental benefits to cities, as previously outlined and in NLC’s new municipal action guide, Integrating Bike Share Programs into a Sustainable Transportation System.  Furthermore, they are attractive to residents and tourists, thereby contributing to a city’s reputation for livability.  Riding a bicycle as a means of transportation or recreation allows individuals to experience a city on a human scale, observing the details that contribute to a thriving urban landscape.  Bikeshare systems bring the convenience and affordability of a bicycle while allowing users to forgo maintenance costs, theft prevention, or the need to always make a two-way trip.  Comments on existing bikeshare systems’ websites demonstrate that many bikeshare users did not previously partake in urban bicycling, but now see their city in a new light and intend to switch travel modes, contributing to the ranks of urban cyclists and serving as a traffic calmer (studies of a “safety in numbers” phenomenon show that the more people riding bikes, the safer it is for all, as drivers become more accustomed to sharing the road).  As cities continue to enjoy successful bikeshare programs – albeit with bumps in the road and lessons learned about redistribution, station placement and system size – the trend is likely to spread to other cities and towns that observe the benefits.  The past few months have already brought a number of bikeshare system expansions and launches across the U.S.

Miami Beach opened DecoBike on March 15, 2011 with 50 stations and 500 bikes.  After its grand opening, DecoBike logged 10,000 rides in less than a week and 20,000 rides in the first 15 days of operation.  At times, 30% of the Decobikes are in simultaneous use – the point at which it becomes difficult to find a free bike at many stations, and an indicator that the system can support an expansion.  On Easter Sunday, 37% of the bikes were checked out at once, demonstrating strong demand for bikes as a transportation and recreation option.  The second phase of expansion will bring the system to 100 stations and 1,000 bikes for a city of nearly 90,000 people – giving it the best bike-to-population ratio of any system in the Americas.  DecoBike’s station placement and pricing scheme are designed to be attractive to both residents and tourists, and an advertisement contract with a major airline will provide a strong source of revenue, in addition to other private sponsorships.  Miami Beach also incentivizes sustainable commutes: employers that purchase memberships for their employees get a tax credit of $20 per month if employees ride bikes to/from work at least ten times a month.

Capital Bikeshare in Washington, DC, commonly known as CaBi, has continued to grow in system size and popularity.  In the first three months of operation, users logged 100,000 trips.  Within three months of opening, the total number of rides surpassed 300,000.  An unseasonably warm February day drew 2,927 trips, a sunny day in early April saw 3,248 trips, and the Sunday after Earth Day shattered the previous record with 4,197 trips.  The impending spring weather and tourist season promises a steady increase in demand, but CaBi already plans to add docks to popular stations and create 65 new stations in Arlington and the District – a handful of which have already gone live in Rosslyn, VA.  A new 5-day membership option is tailored to tourists who can enjoy exploring the city by bicycle.

A number of creative marketing techniques have increased awareness of CaBi and driven a surge in membership.  The Winter Weather Warrior contest awarded prizes to the members who took the most trips, rode the most miles, logged the most minutes and achieved perfect attendance in January and February.  An online discount through the popular daily deal site Living Social sold 8,123 monthly and annual memberships at 50% of the regular cost, enticing new members and encouraging existing members to renew for another year.  The online deal helped push the total number of annual memberships from around 6,600 to 10,700 by the 7th month of operation – giving DC the highest ratio of members to bikes in the world.

Other cities also developed bikeshare networks in the past year.  Des Moines opened its pilot B-cycle system in September 2010 with 18 bicycles across 4 stations with the intent to expand to 100 bikes at 12 stations in the next year.  Chicago’s pilot B-cycle system included 100 bikes at 6 stations during the summer of 2010, and involves plans to expand to a demonstration project at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  With staff support from a local bicycle retailer and start-up funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Communities Putting Prevention to Work Initiative (part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, San Antonio Bikeshare launched in March 2011 with 140 bikes at 15 stations and hopes to expand to 50 stations and 500 bikes by 2013).

The next few years promise more bikeshare system expansions and launches in cities across the U.S., from Chattanooga, Tenn. to New York City, Nashville to Aspen, Colo.  In Minneapolis, NiceRide plans to install about 45 more stations in the summer of 2011.  Boulder B-cycle is scheduled to launch on May 20, 2011 with 100 bikes at 12 stations, and Madison B-cycle could open as early as May 2011 with 35 stations and 350 bikes.  Boston plans to launch in July with 600 bikes across 61 stations.  The system’s start-up costs will be funded through grants and donations, while operating expenses will be paid with corporate sponsorships and revenue from riders.  No municipal tax revenue will be dedicated to the bikeshare system.

This trend, stemming from the confluence of high gas prices, budget crunches, climbing obesity rates, persistent air pollution and a desire to build livable communities, holds potential for addressing all of these challenges.  In the years to come, bikeshare systems are likely to grow in cities and towns across the U.S. to become a ubiquitous component of the public transit network.

Bikeshare Systems Contribute to Transportation Infrastructure Strategy

Bikeshare systems are sprouting across the U.S. at a heartening pace.  Motivated by a combination of factors – including rising oil prices that discourage automobile use, public health concerns and a desire to increase physical activity, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, and the need to more efficiently use urban space – cities and towns are recognizing bicycling as a viable mode of transportation.  The sustainability program at the National League of Cities recently released a municipal action guide, Integrating Bike Share Programs into a Sustainable Transportation System highlighting the benefits of such programs within a larger strategy that includes bike lanes, bike parking and other infrastructure to convince users of the safety, convenience and flexibility of bicycling.

City officials are finding that building bicycling infrastructure is a much greater bang for the municipal buck than car infrastructure: for example, the national average cost to construct an above-ground car parking structure is $16,000 per space, while on-street bicycling parking runs closer to $150 per bike and is more space-efficient, as 10-12 bikes can fit in one car space.  Adding bike lanes to an existing road can cost between $5,000 and $60,000 per mile, including engineering, design, paint and signage.  In comparison, road maintenance alone costs $15,000 per mile per year in the Sacramento region.  Constructing a new two-lane undivided urban road costs $4-5 million per mile, an urban freeway in Michigan costs $39 million per mile, and the I-710 freeway tunnel in Los Angeles cost a staggering $290 million per mile.   Bike lanes are even more cost-effective than at first glance, since they can accommodate 7 to 12 times more people per hour than car lanes, reducing congestion while inflicting significantly less wear and tear on the roads.

Bicycling also saves individuals money on car-related expenses such as the initial vehicle purchase, maintenance, insurance, gasoline and parking.  The American Automobile Association estimates the annual cost of operating a mid-size sedan to be $9,159 and an SUV to be $12,410.  (Note: these figures are calculated using the now-bargain gas prices of $2.603/gallon from late-2009.  Today’s national average is $3.869/gallon).  Individuals choosing to forgo car ownership by relying on bus, bike and rail networks have more disposable income and can choose other ways to spend their money in the community.

Furthermore, these figures don’t reflect the indirect economic benefits of bicycle infrastructure in cities, such as higher properties values (an increase of $8,800 in Delaware) that contribute more in tax revenue; increased consumer spending at local businesses (as customers are more likely to make impulse purchases when not speeding by storefronts in an automobile); lower health care costs due to increased physical activity and cleaner air; and increased bicycle tourism, which has an estimated value of $924 million in Wisconsin alone.  Local officials are recognizing the potential dividends – financial, social and environmental – from investments in bicycle infrastructure, and are acting accordingly in cities across the U.S.

Bikeshare systems are a natural extension of the shift in mentality that prioritizes the efficient movement of people rather than vehicles.  These automated, public bicycle rental programs are considered a form of public transit, complementing bus routes and subway lines and giving commuters a flexible travel mode.  NLC’s municipal action guide, Integrating Bike Share Programs into a Sustainable Transportation System, highlights systems in Denver, Minneapolis, Washington DC/Arlington, VA and Buffalo, NY.  These cities have even expanded their bikeshare systems and other cities have launched programs or created plans for the coming year. Stay tuned for recent updates in the quickly growing world of bikeshare systems.

Looking Forward by Looking Back: Earth Day 41 Years Later

When Gaylord Nelson developed the concept of Earth Day 41 years ago, he was looking for a way to raise the profile of environmental issues at the federal level and garner political support to address a visibly ailing environment across the country. While first attempts, including a Presidential tour of national parks, began a conversation, it wasn’t until Nelson recognized the grassroots efforts happening across college campuses in protest of the Vietnam War as a strategy that may also work to draw attention to environmental neglect at home.

Colleges and universities provided a powerful platform for raising awareness during the early stages of the environmental movement and remain a critical resource for advancing social, economic and environmental interrelationships emblematic of  sustainability initiatives today. Responding to current and projected demand for skills in the burgeoning field of sustainability, curricula and entire fields of study have been developed, redesigned and expanded. Degrees in sustainability policy, renewable energy technology, corporate social responsibility, even “green” MBAs, are becoming standard academic fare across campuses.

As physical centers, college and university campuses themselves often closely resemble and act as micro versions of cities. Many own, operate, and maintain their own utilities, transportation systems, recreational fields, housing, infrastructure, medical facilities, and public safety programs – and almost all do so through complex financial systems which, like cities, are also typically stretched to their limits. In spite of the challenges, and in some cases because of them, college and universities have also been taking the lead on a number of sustainability initiatives and similar to their surrounding cities, are creating sustainability plans and implementing programs to maximize efficiency and create a high quality of life for their residents.

Institutions of higher education also have an asset that many cities strive to attract – large populations of young, creative, talented and highly skilled individuals, the future workforce of the country – and in many cases, are interested in sharing this resource with the surrounding community. Many college and graduate level courses routinely require students to gain hands-on experience in their field through internships or similar learning opportunities, commonly through partnerships with local organizations, business and agencies. Such opportunities are designed to provide mutually beneficial exchanges between partners, are often unpaid and in many cases, result in competitive placements and high-quality outputs.

Colleges and universities have long been laboratories, implementers and visionary leaders in the field of sustainability. Committed to preparing tomorrow’s leaders and finding the solutions to emerging challenges, they are also excellent resources for new ideas often born of interdisciplinary collaboration. Meanwhile, across the broader community, and decades after that first Earth Day sought political recognition of environmental challenges, support for sustainability efforts is today visible in the active leadership, policies and programs of local governments taking steps to increase quality of life, maintain stable and robust economies and protect natural resources for future generations.

Partnerships between cities and universities have a long history spanning across issue areas.  As both sides increasingly find themselves needing to do more with less, might there be additional opportunities to develop, expand and strengthen these partnerships to promote and advance sustainability practices within today’s communities while engaging and learning with tomorrow’s leaders? Today, as we celebrate Earth Day, let’s remember the important role of college and universities – both then and now – and continue to find ways for cities and institutions of higher education to work together to lead the way towards a more sustainable tomorrow.

Making it go “away” – Waste reduction strategies for cities

Paper, tires, yard trimmings, glass, electronics, batteries, food, wood, leather, plastics – the municipal solid waste stream is as complex in composition as it is in its disposal. And while not necessarily the most glamorous of topics (it’s is after all just plain “trash” to most), waste management and disposal represent an important and expensive challenge to local governments.

Though most of us are perfectly content taking it to the curb where it magically “goes away,” for cities the challenges of waste disposal are here to stay, and in response – local governments are getting creative. Last month during NLC’s Congressional City Conference members of the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Steering Committee heard from officials representing Swedish municipalities about their sustainability efforts. On the topic of waste the delegates shared innovative strategies they are using to generate biofuel from organic waste and sophisticated processes for separating household waste into as many as ten separate categories.

In the U.S., the range of waste management strategies varies considerably and depends on a number of factors including location of disposal and recycling facilities, funding and public or political support. While some communities continue to struggle to establish cost-effective and publicly-supported curbside recycling programs, innovative waste-to-energy initiatives have been steadily gaining ground in a number of cities, while others are moving forward with aggressive plans to go completely “zero-waste”.

Overall, programs to divert waste through reusing, recycling or composting are slowly gaining favor among local governments and consumers as these efforts reduce the overall quantity (and therefore costs) of solid waste that eventually needs to be collected, transported and safely disposed of.  Private companies such as Recyclebank have been expanding their partnerships with cities to offer consumers financial incentives based on the volume of waste recycled. A handful of entrepreneurial small businesses and municipal-led programs have also emerged to collect organic waste as part of curbside compost programs. And while disposing of electronics has typically been an arduous affair (thus prompting improper disposal or stockpiling) large electronics suppliers have recently launched “buy-back” programs to encourage the proper collection and perhaps even reuse of items or component parts.

Many options are available to reduce solid waste in communities and in turn, produce benefits such as lower operating costs, job creation and improved public and environmental health. Waste Reduction: Strategies for Cities is a new resource from the Sustainability Program at the National League of Cities highlighting four such options – food waste collection, deconstruction of buildings, pay as you throw and e-waste collection. Does your city have a waste management or reduction success story? Share your experiences at sustainability@nlc.org.

Budget Compromise is Only the Beginning

This week we’ve been receiving a lot of phone calls on the budget compromise and where cities came out. NLC, in coordination with cities and towns across the nation, fought hard to preserve priority investments in cities.

The issues NLC identified as priorities – like Community Development Block Grants – help our cities get back on firm financial footing. While the broader economy may be slowly (very slowly) showing signs of life, cities are still at a low point because the revenues have yet to return. This means that cities continue to face budget shortfalls and difficult decisions that will bring cuts to essential services.

The budget passed by Congress cuts highway funds, first responder grants, and of course, reduces CDBG funding which is used in everything from economic development to low income housing. Cities will certainly feel the pain quite severely.

I wish we could say that this is the end of the budget battles, but it is only just beginning. Before the 2011 compromise was voted on, the debate over fiscal 2012 had begun with House Republicans and the President both announcing their own proposals.

Budget deficits are creating enormous pressure on Washington to reduce spending. But unfortunately, many of the proposals hit right at the innovative programs that invest in our communities and our nation’s future. It is vital that all city officials remain vigilant and continue to educate their federal counterparts to the value of these programs on the local level. Demonstrating the local impact is the best way to highlight the programs that do work and deserve to supported.

Touching the Tigers

The most extraordinary heroes generally prove to be average and ordinary folk. Glen Beneda was one case in point. A fighter pilot in World War II, it was his actions after the war that defined the true measure of his heroism. 

Beneda fought the Japanese in the air over China as a member of the famous Flying Tigers. This unit was General Claire Chennault’s vanguard of tough and skilled pilots that harassed the Japanese occupation force in China while Douglas MacArthur and his troops were island-hopping their way across the Pacific to Tokyo. 

The story is simple but the lessons drawn from Beneda’s life are powerful enough to be passed along across generations. In 1943, Beneda was flying his 81st mission when his plane was shot down over Jianli in Hubei province. Weak and injured Beneda was cared for by local farmers, then by guerrilla fighters and finally by the Chinese Army in that region under the command of General Li Xiannian. 

For 60 days the Chinese hid Beneda from capture, tended his wounds and fed him from their meager provisions. Scores of men literally carried him on a stretcher through occupied territory to the safety of the interior. Playing ping pong with his Chinese hosts while recovering from his injuries, Beneda began a life-long process of thanking the Chinese for saving his life. 

 In the years following the war, Beneda visited China three times. He went back to the village where he crash-landed and spent time with the people there. He met the daughter of the general whose troops had given him aid. Today that woman is Mme. Li Xiaolin; Vice President of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, the leading people-to-people diplomacy organization in China. 

In March 2010, at the age of 86, Glen Beneda made his last pilgrimage to China.  Accompanied by his wife, children and grandchildren, he sought to inspire a younger generation of Americans and Chinese to take up the torch that was light within him by the fires of friendship and sacrifice during a time of war. 

In a moving memorial to Glen Beneda, Mme. Li has produced a documentary, Touching the Tigers, which premiered at the Chinese Embassy in Washington on April 12, 2011. This homage to Beneda, and to all the Americans who fought in China from Stilwell on down, still resonates so many years after the war’s end. The story transcends the issues of trade, commerce or Asian security policy. Further, it demonstrates that singular acts of courage and kindness by ordinary people have profound, transformative and lasting effects far beyond those ever expected by the people involved. 

In a final gesture of enduring friendship and affection, a portion of Glen Beneda’s ashes rest in Chinese soil.

Which Comes First: the Neighbors or the Neighborhood?

The stretch of land has all the attributes to warm the cockles of a city planner’s heart. Bordering the west side is a major sports venue and the nescient development that often accompanies such a facility. At the eastern edge is a moderate density mixed-use federal government property having a significant historical presence and value. At the center of it all is a transit stop and a large office building.

Not enough? Add a river running along the south side of this urban landscape. For good measure, include a multi-million-dollar public park.

Surely this gem of a place hums with energy and all the vibrancy of city living that fills the dreams of every new urbanist. Alas, such is not the case; at least not yet.

On a map, this portion of Washington, D.C., is called Navy Yard, referring to the historic federal property of the same name.  It’s presently being rebranded as Capitol Riverfront although it could just as easily be called “The Yards,” connecting the place to its newest asset, The Yards Park.

The 42-acre park is a genuine attraction unto itself.  Nestled beside the river the landscaping smoothly connects land and water.  Graceful undulating benches and a central water plaza are distinctive features. A geometric bridge and a light tower are striking design elements that add to the parks’ uniqueness.

The one thing missing is people!  Loft apartments are under construction with occupants expected by year-end. Office workers may stroll around but the only retail offering of interest for the lunch crowd is a sandwich shop and a coffee shop.

Perhaps it’s a neighborhood in the making. Washington is a growing city with a population now over 600,000. As an example of deliberate and purposeful transit oriented development, The Yards is as reasonable a model as any.

But The Yards also offers lessons in patience and in tempered expectation.  Patience because even with the proximity to a baseball park which opened in March 2008, The Yards neighborhood has yet to fully emerge. Tempered expectation because even with all the amenities created by $3 billion in public and private investment, The Yards has yet to qualify as a significant place.

It’s a wonderful thing to have attractive neighborhoods and city leaders can take steps to help create the infrastructure for great neighborhoods. At The Yards, all that is needed now are some neighbors.  And some street trees.