Bike-share program just might be feasible
I’ve owned a bicycle most of my life, but when I heard a bike-sharing program was coming to Schenectady, I wanted to try it.
I’d read about other bike-sharing programs and wrote an article for The Gazette about Citi Bike, the massive New York City program launched last year.
One of the questions posed by the piece was whether the Capital Region could support a similar program, and the answer seemed to be no, probably not. Though cycling advocates I spoke with generally liked the idea, they felt the area lacked the necessary infrastructure and groundswell of public interest needed to get it off the ground and keep it going.
This made a certain amount of sense, which might explain why I wanted to test the bike-sharing program in Schenectady. Perhaps the conventional wisdom — that bike sharing just wouldn’t work here — was wrong.
Before I go any further, I should probably explain how bicycle sharing works, since many of the people I encountered when I tested Schenectady’s program were unfamiliar with the idea and asked a lot of questions, such as “What’s with all those bikes?” and “Are they free?” and “Can anyone use them?”
Bicycle sharing is pretty much what it sounds like: a system for loaning out bicycles to people who want to use them. Such programs provide registered riders with access to a network of bicycles strategically placed around a geographic area and which can be picked up and dropped off at designated locations.
Since more-experienced bikers are likely to own their own bikes, the program is designed for the less-experienced: The bikes are sturdy and durable, with several gears and a metal basket in front of the handlebars. Schenectady’s program is a demo that runs through Wednesday. Similar programs will be tested in Troy, Saratoga Springs and Albany through mid-August.
Curious to see how bicycle sharing works — or doesn’t work — in practice, I headed to downtown Schenectady with my bicycle helmet Friday morning, to a small tent outside City Hall. Manning the tent was Anders Gunnerson, who coordinates the bike-sharing program in Buffalo and is modeling the program in the Electric City, and a representative from the local bike group Troy Bike Rescue.
I explained I wanted to register for the program and ride a bike, and Gunnerson pulled open his laptop and walked me through the process, which was pretty painless. I provided my name, address, telephone number and credit card information, although the program is free, and created a PIN code that would allow me to access the bikes. Then I was given a short tutorial on how to use a bike, before being directed to the intersection of Jay and State streets, where seven bikes were locked to a rack. Bikes are also available on Union Street in front of Union College’s Webster House and in front of First Reformed Church.
I typed my PIN code into the keypad affixed to the rear of the bike to unlock it, which was easy enough, although I was still surprised, as I always am, to find the technology actually worked the way it was supposed to. More challenging was figuring out where exactly I wanted to go.
I opted against riding down State Street, because riding a bike I had never used before down a busy urban street seemed fraught with risk. Instead, I walked the bike down the traffic-free stretch of Jay Street and hopped on near City Hall, where it was a little less crowded with vehicles and pedestrians.
I like biking, and I’ve taken a road-cycling course, which helped me gain a better understanding of how to bike in traffic. But I’d be lying if I said I enjoy city biking, and I’m generally much happier when I’m on a bike path, far from traffic. Downtown Schenectady is not a particularly pleasant place to bike, though it’s probably no worse than, say, downtown Albany.
Because it was close to noon, I decided to head to La Gioia Deli on Van Vranken Avenue to pick up my lunch. I sought out the quieter side streets and was impressed with how well the bike handled — the gear changes were smooth, and I didn’t labor too much on the few hills I climbed.
All in all, it was a serviceable bike, suitable for errands or short trips. If you felt like biking from the Stockade to Central Park or going for a short ride on the bike path near Schenectady County Community College, it would probably work fine.
The bike-sharing pilot program is sponsored by the Capital District Transportation Committee, with the goal of gauging local interest in bike sharing. According to Gunnerson, about 20 people had registered for the program in Schenectady after it had been an operation for about 24 hours, while about 100 people stopped by the tent to ask questions.
He said it takes a little while to teach people what bike sharing is and how to integrate biking into everyday life.
“Changing the culture around biking is not necessarily a fast thing,” he said.
He added that there are different models for bike-share programs, and the Buffalo model is flexible.
“You could have as few as five bikes and have a feasible system, or you could have 30 bikes,” he said. “The greater Capital Region could be one giant bike share. I see a lot of similarities between this region and where I grew up in Buffalo.”
So can bike sharing work in the Capital Region? Perhaps.
After trying out the pilot program, I’m more optimistic than I used to be. I was impressed with how easy the system was to use and the relative ease with which I was able to bike around a town that wasn’t designed with bicycles in mind. But what really made me think the program might have potential was the number of questions I got from passers-by while using the bike and their reactions, which were uniformly positive.
People might not know much about bike sharing, at least not right now. But when they learn what it is, they like the idea.
For more information on the Capital Region bike-share pilot program, visit http://capitalmoves.org/capital-region-bikeshare-month.