Thursday, July 19, 2007

biking in EUrope (not just Paris)

An article in IHT has me pissed off this morning.
[Tues morning, actually –ed.]

This kind of think might only irk me on another day, when I wasn't so pissed off about having my bike stolen. But then the article does happen to be about… bikes. How am I supposed to not be pissed off right now? I had a relationship with that bike. Can you guess how angry I am? Are the italics getting the point across?

So. The famously cool, openly gay mayor of Paris has finally willed into existence the largest public bike program in the history of Europe. Ooh la la! Granted, the Dutch and Germans are light years ahead in urban biking culture, but the scale of Paris’s program is stunning. Why? Possibly because the bikes weigh 50 kg and are retro cool and shiny silver… but more likely because, well, this is Paris. When a bird shits in Paris, the IHT sends some minion to report the details.

Meanwhile, other EUrocities have already introduced comparable programs--both Berlin and Vienna have had popular programs for over a year now. They may be smaller in scale, but they’re accomplishing the same goal: reducing car traffic and pollution, and getting people off their asses—well, that’s not true—keeping them on their asses, but at least making them responsible for moving them. It’s the same idea, and it’s revolutionizing these cities in the same way—so why isn’t it being reported on?

Operational since March, Barcelona’s Bicing has become a big hit. The Catalan I live with has already subscribed (there are now over 80,000 members), even though she has her own moto. The cute-enough red and white bikes are already ubiquitous in central Barcelona, and many stations are already totally empty in the middle of the day—another sign of success, but also of the need to amplify the infrastructure. Bicing’s home page (only Span/Catalan) will give you the full lowdown. In short, the genius is the simplicity of the system. You type in your code at a station, and pull out the bike. You have a couple of hours to return it to another station, where you again type in your code and are directed to a dock number. The time limit apparently encourages people to keep the bikes within city limits, as they are intended. With more and more stations around the city, it only becomes easier to find a bike wherever you are. And no worries about making an investment and then having it stolen by some asshole while you are, like, away on a trip.

The yearly charge for this incredibly useful service is too embarrassingly low for me, as an American, to share. However American cities, not without their own congestion problems, are beginning to take notice. Coincidentally, the NYT just ran an intelligent op-ed plea for Mayor Bloomberg to push for a similar program before he leaves office—now that it seems the London-inspired pay-to-drive plan, logical as it is, has failed to gain momentum. As a New Yorker and a biker (er, bicyclist?), I can’t overemphasize my support for such a program. Aside from how wonderful it is to imagine a bike-infested Manhattan, Haskell’s case makes financial sense. Check it out. Bikes are back, yo.

One last thing about Paris—the program is impressive because it is truly massive. And, as you can see, the bikes are kind of sleekly retro, in that uniquely French way that we hate to love. I do hope the plan works, because—as unfair as it is—the fact remains that if it works in a place like Paris, other megacities will have to adjust, if for no other reason than to maintain their competitivity in the “great cities of the world” pissing contest. (Hey: whatever you need to become better, I guess.)

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