As kids, we all learn about sharing our toys with others. The efficiency benefits of sharing are obvious. For two teams of five kids to play a game of basketball, you don’t need 10 basketballs, just one.
But somewhere down the line, as we get older, amid a consumer-driven culture, many of us begin to buy and use more things for exclusive personal use. If we are to create a lasting and sustainable future, we are going to have relearn how to share. Some exciting new ideas are taking root around the world and the country that use sharing to change the face of urban transportation.
One such idea is bike sharing. Bike-share programs have been sprouting up in cities around Europe, as well as some cities in the U.S., like Washington D.C.; Miami Beach, Fla.; and Denver. Many more are in the works, even in cities like Madison, Wisc.
It’s not a new idea, but many older efforts to create shared-bike programs resulted in a lot of disappearing bikes. Modern bike-sharing systems use kiosks, nominal fees, credit-card security deposits and in some cases even GPS to ensure bikes are properly returned and stay in circulation. Bikes can be picked up from any station and returned to any station. Usually, the first half-hour is free, with charges accumulating from then on. This encourages bike-sharing primarily for short trips.
Paris launched bike-sharing into the spotlight when, in 2007, it rolled out the most ambitious bike-sharing program in the world to date. Their Vélib' (short for vélo liberté or bicycle freedom) bike-sharing system currently stations more than 20,000 bikes. I can attest to the impact of Vélib in the city, having seen the program in person on a trip to Paris last year, watching the shared bikes going by every which way. Unfortunately, I did not use the bikes myself, since the stations required a credit card with a security chip not yet common in U.S. credit cards.
Stations were fairly easy to spot almost anywhere in the city and usually not more than a brief walk from any point of interest and many places in between. Almost anytime I looked out at the street, I saw at least someone go buy on a shared bike, sometimes several people rolling by. By nearly all accounts, the program has been a huge success, despite the fact that Paris seemed to have less dedicated bicycle lanes and other infrastructure than I would have thought.
Bike-sharing systems are beneficial in several ways. First of all, they provide easy bike access to anyone, regardless of whether they own a bike themself. This is great for tourists, but it’s not limited to the tourism market. Someone who takes the bus or train into work but wants to head out for a quick lunch can grab a bike and go. It completely eliminates the “last-mile” problem of public transportation without the dilemma of people trying to fit bikes onto trains and buses.
It’s also great for someone living in a smaller apartment with no on-site bike storage, someone who may be reluctant to take up living space with a bike. Such living arrangement are very common in Paris and pretty common in parts of Santa Monica as well. Bike-sharing system tend to increase the presence and frequency of cyclists, and a number of studies have shown that the increased presence of cyclists on the road, beyond a certain threshold, results in improved road safety. Some cities—like Portland, Ore.—have significantly more riders now than several years ago, but total bike-involved collisions are actually down and trending further downward.
As I mentioned in my earlier , I no longer own a car. However, even being the bike fanatic that I am, I do drive on some occasions—generally, only when a trip demands significant carrying capacity, time constraints and or large distances, which make alternatives like transit and bicycling entirely impractical.
So how do I drive without owning a car? I’m a subscriber to LAX Car Share, a start-up company built on the model of predecessors like Flex Car and Zip Car (which bought out Flex Car). Car-share members pay a small annual or monthly fee and can use cars that are rented out on hourly rates rather than just by day. Unlike traditional car-rental services, car-share users can make easy reservations online and can use their own registered-user key fob to open a shared car 24 hours a day. The cars are usually spread out in different locations, parked in public and visible places.
Car sharing makes it makes it easier for people on the fence about living car-free to go ahead without car ownership. It also makes it easier for two- or three-car families to get by on a single car. By allowing a smaller fleet of cars to serve more people, it reduces the total number of cars and thus the need for as many parking spaces. These are enormous environmental and economic savings. According to Adam Cohen at the University of California, Berkeley, the 27 car-sharing programs currently in the U.S. had 518,520 subscribed members sharing 7,776 cars.
Unfortunately, only one car-share vehicle exists in Santa Monica at the moment, courtesy of LAX Car Share, and it’s not always available. While such service has been enormously popular for some time in cites like San Fransisco and Boston, it’s been a fledgling enterprise so far in the L.A. area, with LAX Car Share scattered in a few spots around Los Angeles and Zip Car only at university campuses. However, if the idea catches on and more locations can be supported, the more effective and reliable the service becomes.
One of the other big factors with car sharing is the psychological shift. When you own a car, you pay a significant amount up front, paying for the car itself, and other associated costs like gas, maintenance and insurance are made periodically and spread apart. With LAX Car Share, I pay for the rental cost, the gas and the insurance bundled together as a flat $7-an-hour payment. Thinking about driving as a direct $7-an-hour cost, rather than diffused costs and fees paid over time, changes the way I value time spent driving. I like to have that access to a car if I need it, but looking to avoid that seven bucks an hour, my wife and I continue to plan most of our trips around walking, bicycling and public transit. We save driving really only for more exceptional cases, and whenever possible seek to hook up with others and carpool.
Vehicle sharing can become one part of creating a more efficient transportation network, as well as opening up more choices in the marketplace of getting around. No one benefits when we devote nearly all of our resources into supporting private automobiles at the expense of alternatives—not even the drivers and car owners themselves, who are often stuck competing for finite space amongst a sea of other automobiles.
Our city staff have started exploring how to facilitate more car sharing with parking partnerships, and they have been investigating public bike sharing as well. City Hall actually has a handful of shared bikes that staff can use, and I’ve seen our Principal Transportation Engineer Sam Morrissey a few times. I’d like to see these transformative ideas flourish and find a permanent home here in Santa Monica.