Watch out, Copenhagen.

Like so many a rider at the back of the peleton, California cities have long lagged behind their European counterparts in their embrace of bicycling. But they are now clipping in and gearing with the dramatic arrival of bike sharing. With zero major bike-sharing systems currently in the state, no fewer than five California cities will be adopting pilot projects by mid-2013.  

Touted as an ideal amenity for tourists and a "first-mile, last-mile" solution for commuters, bike sharing is a short-term, high-tech twist on bike rentals. Automated stations are placed at close intervals – sometimes as few as two or three blocks – from one another, and users with a day pass or annual membership can check out bikes with the swipe of a card and then deliver them back to any other vending station upon arriving at their destination, all without ever getting into a car.

"Nobody is going to be commuting across the city on bike share," said Eric Bruins, planning and policy director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. "It gives them mobility within the destination area for that first-mile, last-mile….it allows people to go out to lunch without having to worry about re-parking."

Long established overseas in Paris, Barcelona, and Vienna, and more recently introduced in American cities such as Denver, Boston, and Washington, D.C., bike sharing is scheduled to arrive soon in Anaheim, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, plus San Francisco and other cities along the Caltrain corridor.          

Bike advocacy groups, which have long lobbied for making California's streets more friendly to cyclists, are hailing bike sharing's arrival—even if planned improvements to cities' respective bicycle infrastructures remain years away.

 "I think the time is now to install these bike sharing systems even though we have a long way to go changing the streets to be safe enough for most people," said David Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition. "It's like a gateway drug to practical bicycling."

Promoters attribute the rapid deployment of bike sharing in California to the success that other cities have enjoyed. Enough test cases have succeeded—with expansion and steady increases in ridership—in more compact, bicycle-friendly cities that California cities are now willing to test the concept. As well, new state laws aimed at curbing climate change, such as Assembly Bill 32 and Senate Bill 375, give new weight to any program that encourages the use of alternative transportation.

"I think with (AB 32) coming down the pipeline, cities are looking at how cities might be able to gain some offset credits for carbon," said Derek Fretheim, CEO of Tustin-based bike sharing vendor Bike Nation.

By the end of 2013, Anaheim is expected to have installed 100 bikes at ten stations, while the Bay Area, Long Beach, and Los Angeles are planning to install several hundred bikes, each, at dozens of stations.

"There are two kinds of mayors: mayors with a bike sharing system and mayors that want one," said Maddox.

Though these represent dramatic increases over California's current bike share offerings—which amount to the few dozen bikes of UC-Irvine's Zotwheels—they still pale in comparison to the systems in place elsewhere. Worldwide, nearly 200 cities have bike Sharing programs. Paris' Vileb' has over 20,000 bikes, while Huangzhou, China's system has over 60,000, making it the largest such system in the world. 

Though it lags far behind those places, California may be, in many ways, an ideal place for bike sharing.

 "First of course, our climate: how can you beat Southern California?" said Allan Crawford, sustainability coordinator for the City of Long Beach, on reasons why Long Beach is embracing the concept. "And its topography: we're flat, so it makes it incredibly easy to get around."

One of the driving forces is Fretheim's Bike Nation, which is aggressively marketing its bike Sharing system to California cities. Bike Nation is vertically integrated, developing its own bicycles, stations, and software. Company officials say that they expect to have roughly 5,000 bikes at roughly 500 stations in the next few years.

Planners see bike sharing as a solution to the perennial "first-mile, last-mile problem," in which commuters who use public transportation often must cope with station stops that are not quite where they want to go. Bike sharing enables those commuters to easily navigate the "last mile." They can also maintain mobility around a downtown area throughout the day, rather than need a personal car. 

Bike Nation is staking its growth on a business model that may be too attractive for cities to pass up.

 "Los Angeles has the perfect opportunity at this point in time to look at an actual working model before we go out to RFP," said Lisa Sarno, executive director of Environment and Sustainability for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Whereas most bike sharing programs worldwide have been public-private partnerships, funded in part with public monies and grants (systems in Boston and Washington, D.C., received federal grants of $3 million and $6 million, respectively), Bike Nation will be operating in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Anaheim entirely at their own expense. The company has simply asked the respective cities to make licensing agreements that allow the company to set up stations and then to keep whatever user fees and advertising revenue it collects.

The vending stations, which use solar power and wireless communications, are free-standing and can be set up almost anywhere. They will be established on both private property, such as in parking lots or plazas, and in the public right of way, such as on sidewalks or in curbside parking spaces, with city approval.

 "The city is going through the process internally to determine what the permit process would be for both private property and public property," said Sarno. "If there's an issue or a problem with any of the bike Sharing stations, the city still reserves the right to revoke that permit."

As well, even cities that are welcoming private vendors insist that they will still do their part to promote bike sharing and ensure that it is serving the public interest.

"We will also be actively involved in community engagement," said Crawford. "While it's a private enterprise, it will be viewed as an integral part of what the city does and what the city is."

Maddox said that bike stations are likely to be sited and permitted in much the same way that parklets or bicycle corrals are. In most cases, the initial cluster of stations will be placed in relatively active areas such as San Francisco's downtown and South of Market district.

"We're really trying to focus on a dense blanket of these stations over a limited area," said Heath Maddox, a senior planner with the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency.

Fretheim said that many of the bike station locations will be in predictably high-traffic areas such as tourist attractions and transportation centers. In that sense, the planning is nearly self-evident.

"Finding locations are probably the easiest part in terms of saying 'we would like to provide connectivity from, say, the Blue Line to Shoreline Village'— looking at an end destination," said Fretheim. 

In some cities, Bike Nation will be focusing on discrete destinations, including tourist attractions and transportation hubs. Further down the Caltrain line, bike stations will be placed at the Caltrain stations and in downtowns to serve commuters.

For its part, the City of Los Angeles reserves the right to alter this arrangement as it sees fit, including  issuing a request for proposals from other firms that might supplant or compete with Bike Nation.

Despite its fiscal benefits, full privatization has its problems, according to some bike advocates. By giving the vendor free rein, cities have no way of ensuring that the system will serve the broad public interest, as opposed to serving only the vendor's need to sell advertising.

"It restricts our ability to say, ‘there's a demand for it in South LA; we'd like to see you there,'" said Bruins. "We're going to see potentially restricted deployment to areas where it's economically feasible at the expense of social equity criteria."

If Bike Nation and its counterparts in the Bay Area succeed, then bike sharing may be a gauntlet thrown down to urban planners and transportation planners. While Long Beach has been developing a network of bike lanes and other bike-friendly infrastructure for some time, cities such as Los Angeles are only beginning to implement ambitious, multiyear programs. There, bike sharing could introduce thousands of new riders annually on to a street grid that is not yet optimized for them.

Bike advocates say that there is good reason for cities to adopt bike sharing programs even in the face of a seemingly dangerous situation, in which tourists are competing for road space with indifferent, fast-moving cars.

"People will discover that bicycling is easier and safer than they thought it was," said Snyder.

Informal studies around the world suggest that bike sharing is relatively safe, and even  safer than riding personal bicycles. Transport for London reported last year that its bike sharing system had experienced zero serious injuries or fatalities in 4.5 million trips. Washington D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare also reported no serious incidents in its first 300,000 trips.

In fact, advocates say that bike sharing will create a whole new constituency of cyclists who may, in turn, create political pressure needed to speed up the implementation of cities' bike plans.

 "I think we're at the point now where most of the pilot locations will have enough to allow people to use it and it will help provide us justification for why we need to complete the networks in each of those areas," said Bruins. Fretheim said that cities are now including bike sharing in their transportation and land use elements of their general plan updates.

Advocates of bike sharing hope that it, and other efforts to promote bikes, will have ripple effects throughout the built environment. Many areas throughout the state that are already bike-friendly have experienced increased development and population growth in recent years, and in keeping with a wider trend of urban revitalization and gentrification.

 "We have seen that any city that invests in innovative bicycle and safety improvements is a popular neighborhood for development," said Snyder. Snyder cited the arrival of tech companies Zynga and Twitter in downtown San Francisco suggests that bike-ability can correlate with economic growth.

Once these initial programs begin operations, the next step, according to Snyder, is to ensure that they operate well, not just within cities, but also between cities. He envisions an integrated system in which a bike Sharing memberships in one California city would automatically grant users access to systems in every other city.

"One of the things that we're concerned about is a hodgepodge of different systems throughout the state," said Snyder. Fretheim said that users of Bike Nation will enjoy that sort of inter-city access, but integration among different vendors may be further off.

Regardless, supporters are hopeful that bike sharing—unlike other bike-related fads that have come and gone—will become a permanent, practical option for commuters in California.

 "Will lycra-clad bicycling wax and wane? Without a doubt, it will" said Crawford. "This is something that truly becomes part of the sustainable urban fabric."


Derek Fretheim, CEO, Bike Nation, 1.800.980.7942

Heath Maddox, Senior Planner, San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, 415.701.4605

Allan Crawford, Sustainability Coordinator, City of Long Beach, 562.570.6555

Eric Bruins, Planning & Policy Director, Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, 213.629.2142

Lisa Sarno Executive Director, Environment & Sustainability, Los Angeles Mayor's Office, 213 922-9725

David Snyder, Executive Director, California Bicycle Coalition, 916.446.7558