Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Brainfood: the City of Strasbourg looks at public bikes

Should a city, already a major cycling capital, with more than one hundred thousand bikes out in its streets and a ten percent modal share for bike transport, even bother to look at the possibility of a Pubic Bicycle System? Unnecessary, redundant, counter-productive? Useful, synergistic? World Streets traveled to Strasbourg in the east of France to look around and find out how they feel about it.

To get a feel for their thinking on this I just spent four fascinating days observing and working on the New Mobility Agenda in Strasbourg, an especially attractive city of some 250,000 located in the east of France and nestled right on the border of Germany. In addition to a series of highly informative and challenging interviews and conversations with a fair spectrum of local transportation experts, policymakers and operators, I had a great opportunity to find my way around the city and its surrounding region through an intense combination of walking, cycling, bus, boat, their excellent tramway system, and even taxis on a couple occasions when I got stuck. Watching and talking to people just about nonstop as I made my way around the central area, but also reaching out into the extended metropolitan area were an additional half-million people live in a combination of small clusters and a local version of suburban sprawl.

In transportation terms, Strasbourg is far from being just one more city. It has created a highly innovative alternative transportation system of many layers which can legitimately be considered a model for others. And that was precisely why I was there, to look and to learn. I intend to write up my findings in a series of articles to appear here looking at key points in their strategy and competence, but today is the first step I would like to share with you a few things I learned while I was there about public bicycles from a somewhat unusual perspective.

Strasbourg enjoys a cycling situation that most cities can only dream about. It is the biking capital of France. Which makes it especially interesting to consider what happens when a city, that already has something like 140,000 bikes, more than 500 km of protected cycling provision that there carefully built up over the years, and an impressive 10% modal share for cycling, starts to think about what might be the place of a Public Bicycle System in their city.

The conversations I had with a fair cross-section of people, agencies and groups revealed that this is indeed something at which they are starting to look quite seriously. And while it is not at the absolute top of the list of their 2009 transportation priorities, nonetheless will be giving it attention in the months immediately ahead.

And there is, in my view at least, plenty of room for public bikes even in a city like Strasbourg.

What I was able to observe is that there is a basic cycling pattern in the city, as in many others, in which citizens use their own bikes in very specific ways. There is of course a fair amount of leisure cycling, but most of the usage is result of people hopping on their bike at a specific time, for specific purpose, to go to a specific place. It is by and large "organized transportation", albeit self-organized. Another characteristic of these trips is that they generally tend to take place along very specific, usually very well-known routes. Again, organized transportation.

But when we step back and consider how public bicycles are used in those several handfuls of cities in which they have become a real transportation alternatives for daily use, we observe a quite different pattern. The trips tend to be less routine, more incidental, last-minute, and even optional. Closer to the way in which many people use their cars in fact, as opposed to public transportation: a two wheeled, low-cost, high-efficiency, zero carbon version of DRT, demand responsive transport. Hard to beat once you think about it like that.

And this to my mind is where we start to see that even in a city as well equipped for cycle as Strasbourg, there are opportunities for public bikes as well. I look forward to being able to share with you their findings and results in the months ahead, because what they learn is going to be valuable for us all. In the meantime I invite your comments here, which I will be pleased to share on a selective basis with the Strasbourg team. But I guess the only way in which you can fully grasp what is going on and what they should be doing along these lines will be for you to spend a few days seeing for yourself.

Stay tuned.

The editor

PS. Here is one thing I learned about Strasbourg that is I think quite striking in the context of World Streets and our shared interests here. Perhaps you did not know this. The name has as you can see two main parts: the first half, “stras” means “street “in the local language. The second half, the "bourg", “city”. “City of streets”. Nice.

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