Sunday, January 11, 2009

Do city bikes reduce cars in cities?

Our colleague Sebastian Bührmann writes on Wednesday 5 March: Can anyone help with data regarding the following two questions? 1) Do public bicycle programs have had a noticeable effect on the use of cars in urban areas? 2) What is their impact on public transit use (do they hurt public transport operators or do they help)?

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These are excellent questions and considerably more delicate than they might at first appear to be. Let’s have a look.

The matter of car substitution, just like that of CO2 reductions, is in fact not something that lends itself well to short-term measurement and assessment. And as a matter of fact, this is as true with just about any of the policies or initiatives of the New Mobility Agenda as it is with a new city bike project.

This is not to say that a properly designed and implemented city bike project will not get cars off the street or CO2 out of the air, including in the short-term. However for various reasons this is very difficult to judge in a meaningful manner -- and in any event the crux of the entire matter lies in what happens not so much now all but rather over a period of adaptation spanning months and even a year or two or three. A city bike project is above all a process, an organic process of discovery, adaptation, and change on the part of a large number of individual citizens acting on their own and for reasons of their own.

It helps to stand back a bit and visualize the process that actually unfolds once you start to get a couple thousand bicycles out on the street of your city, and people begin using them to connect their lives on a day-to-day basis. It starts first as a matter of simple curiosity, then experimentation and adaptation, and eventually for some begins to take the form of a habit. It is this last that is the most important contribution of the city bike: people changing their lives in some fundamental ways, based on their own personal choices that make a difference to them, and which in time to relate to make differences on the city and the environment.

How do you measure this? Here is a good procedure for getting a specific number for this, but believe me a number of not much use. Suppose for example this morning you walked out onto the street and asked 20 or 20,000 people parking one of their city bikes in a station in Paris, Lyon, or Barcelona: how would you have made this trip if you did not have a city bike available in order to do it? More often than not you'll find the answers range broadly, from: Might not have made the trip at all. Used it instead of walking, Might have taken a bus or other public transport if I could've found one, or -- -- and this is something you're sure to hear far less often -- Oh yes, I used it instead of taking my car (or even less often a taxi).

So if you're in a rush to consider that this first round of responses is all you need to come to your determination about what is going on, there you have it: city bikes just don't seem to be substituting for car trips. At most a couple of percent. And if they're not substituting one for one and immediately for car trips, they're also not having any particular climate impacts. So that's it for city bikes!

But that's not the whole picture dear friends, and it is in fact right here where the true greatness of the city bike concept begins to kick in. Let's walk through this process briefly together.

After you as a new user have gone through the necessary early stages and made your peace with the system that you have in your city, these bikes began to help you move rather subtly over into a new pattern of moving about, where you go, and even what you do. Just as we saw over the last decades of the 20th century that when people have "free" access to cars they almost automatically expand the distances which they travel in their daily lives, and in parallel with that land-use patterns stretch as well. This is exactly how the dominance of the car culture led to the destruction of the city center in far too many places.

But as the city bike user, there will be days when the weather is just too rotten for you at least to take your bike... so what do you do then? Well the odds are that if your city has a half decent public transportation system you are likely to opt for it. Because even if it lacks the flexibility of a great city bike, a good bus system can have advantages of its own. Not only that, if the designers of the system to their job the entire ticketing and fare system support the concept of inter-mobility. And thus at least some of us in the process move from being Mono-Modal Men (the majority of those car captives) to Multi-Modal People. A definite improvement in terms of environment, economics, fairness, and simple sociability.

So what happens is that once you get your first class city bike project in place and enough people start to use it, you begin to get a new metric for your city which places increased value on proximity and in the process by the way favors local businesses and suppliers of goods and services in the area served.

Now all of a sudden you begin to have the makings of a new ballgame. Not for everybody at all at once, but gradually for certain portion of them, that second car begins to be less needed. For others living in the center, and once first-class car sharing services also become available to complete the multimodal chain of new mobility (we sometimes call car sharing "the last nail in the coffin of old mobility"), the idea of hanging on to their own car at high cost and often high peripheral discomfort becomes a part of their past.

A pattern break has gotten underway and all of a sudden a relationship with our own cars begins to move into a new dimension.

In the process old mobility falls away, slowly, slowly, like autumn leaves falling off the trees.

And that is the real power of the city bike and the New Mobility Agenda.

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