Sunday, June 23, 2013

Too many bikes!

(Bikes, or yikes?)
You may have read the article about Amsterdam's bike parking problem in Friday's New York Times. Here, from New Amsterdam, is my take on the situation.

I've thought a lot about the end game for cycling as a mode in cities. Obviously bikes are much better than cars in terms of their environmental impact - pollution, noise, energy use, taking up lots of space. But one key problem - the domination of public space for the storage of private vehicles - remains an issue with bikes.

One piece of good news is that the day of reckoning is still way far off, at least for NYC. According to the article, 32% of trips in Amsterdam are by bike, a truly staggering mode share. (The current goal of the NYC Department of Transportation, the most bike-friendly DoT in city history, is for the cycling commuter mode share to hit 3% by 2020.)

I think there are two ultimate solutions to the problem of transportation in very dense environments. The first is a reliance on mass, rapid transit (i.e. subways and regional/commuter rail) for at least the backbone of most trips. Mass transit, as the name might suggest, has throughput rates that no other mode can even begin to approach. And if it's below grade (underground) or even above grade (but that's ugly; we took down the elevated railroads for a reason) it doesn't place heavy demands on street space, leaving that resource open for…

…paratransit - bike share and taxi fleets. One of the worst problems with cars is that they spend 97% of their time parked, rather than being in use. When that parking occurs in a dense urban setting, it represents a massive misuse of valuable space. (Why does Manhattan still have free on-street parking when adjacent condos are selling for $3,000 per square foot, and San Francisco realtors are selling garage spaces for upwards of $80,000?) Taxis and bike share are good because the vehicles are always in use or available for use, meaning the space they occupy is better utilized.

So ideally, trips in a central city would start on foot or via shared bike/car, connect to a high-throughput mass transit network, and end with a "last-mile" leg again on foot or by paratransit. (Or the shared bike or car trip could go the full distance, though that's somewhat less system-optimal, particularly in the case of the car due to the congestion it creates.) Outside the city? I care not; space is at much less a premium.

Denmark, as I understand it, actually works in much this way; many suburban Copenhageners own cars and drive them, for fun, on weekends, outside the city. Then they get back to transit and biking, much space-friendlier transportation modes, for their weekday utility trips.

So what should Amsterdam be doing to solve their (I can't believe I'm writing this) bike congestion problem? Building more bike parking is not a long-term viable solution, unless there's a sense that the 32% mode share is near the theoretical maximum (and I don't think it is) so parking needs won't continue to increase in future. Instead, they need to address the inefficiencies present in their city as indicated by the guy quoted in the article as having three bikes all locked up on public streets at the same time.

This misuse of public space has two good solutions: encourage a transition to bike share and begin charging for on-street bike parking. The Netherlands has a national bike sharing program, but it's smaller than NYC's system even as currently implemented (theirs totals 6000 bikes at 230 stations; we so far have about 5000 bikes at 300 stations and we're looking at 10,000 bikes and 600 stations hopefully by the end of the summer). A heavy expansion in central Amsterdam - we're talking a station at every other intersection - combined with an education campaign touting the benefits of bike share over private bike use (and there are many, not least of which is the nonexistent risk of theft) could get many Amsterdammers' private bikes off the road.

The bigger solution, and doubtless the more controversial in a city actually dominated by an "all-powerful bike lobby," is to charge bike riders for parking their bikes on public streets. This could be done through a system of handlebar-mounted permits (monthly or yearly for local residents or frequent commuters) allowing owners to lock up anywhere in the permit's district, and the installation of combined bike racks/parking meters for short-term use (ideally with an SFpark-style smart pricing infrastructure, so that prices can adjust over time to reflect local supply and demand). I envision the parking pricing remaining fairly low: the goal is not to raise money for the city, or to disincentivize biking, but rather to urge riders to store their bikes off the street - which would in turn invigorate private bike parking operations.

The bottom line is that in Amsterdam, cycling has become the new normal - which, thankfully, is the current goal here in New York and in an increasing number of cities. Cycling is an excellent urban transportation mode. But when it reaches the point where it begins to create the same problems that private car use has been creating for the past century, some of the same solutions are in order.

Does this suck? A little bit. One of the joys of the bicycle is the air of freedom it carries - the ability to zip nimbly through narrow streets, lock up to just anything, and get on with your business before the car driver even makes it past the choked expressway. I recently, after a debate with a fellow cycling advocate, made the decision to start riding not just according to the spirit of the law (don't endanger others) but also to its letter (stop for the full duration of red lights, at stop signs, etc.). I feel good about being part of the new, courteous face of urban cycling, but a little magic has gone out of the world for me.

In the end, though, it's not about the joy of riding (there's always suburban and rural roads for that sort of thing) but about the proper place of cycling in cities: safe, respected, ubiquitous - and regulated.

Where do you see cycling headed in NYC and Amsterdam?


  1. I'd like to see Amsterdam do a Sobi kind of bike share. People could donate their personal dutch bikes to Sobi, which would fit them with the lock, solar panel, and gps device needed.

    Many of those bikes have to be abandoned and I would be in favor of a tag and cut policy. Those squatters take up valuable space that could be used for daily commuters.

    And I am not opposed to paying for parking bikes either. It's just how you have to manage a valuable resource. Giving it away for free means there will be a shortage.

    1. Maybe the best option would be to combine a tag-and-cut effort (which does take place in the Netherlands) with SoBi. That is, reclaim abandoned bikes and convert the suitable ones to ad-hoc bike share vehicles.

      (You'd probably have to have a waiting period between removing the abandoned bike and redeploying it as a Social Bicycle, in case the owner came looking for it. But that's not prohibitively difficult, or expensive.)

      Tag-and-cut is the stick; the carrot would be to offer some range of perks (bike parking meter credits, or discounts at retailers) in exchange for donating your underused bike to the program.

      Now, how to solve the insurance problem - i.e. the liability of operating a bike share fleet of different makes, models, and states of repair?