I wasn’t born yet, but I tend to buy the argument that the 70s boom was largely to do with the boomers having disposable income, with the oil crisis being a minor side-attraction. The booms of the 80s and beyond were all about the pursuit of sport, not transportation. So, at least as the American cycling experience is concerned, we are in the midst of the first post-car bike boom that’s really about transportation instead of sport… about taking the car-friendly landscape and turning it into a bike-friendly landscape.
Portland has long been the epicenter of this boom, but San Francisco has played a big part of this boom as well, especially as we’ve crossed over from the Critical Mass idealistic anti-car idealized vision of a future to the realpolitik of convincing people who can afford a Tesla to instead pick the bike as their carbon-free form of transportation.
“Start Anywhere,” said the Stanford bike coordinator in her talk. She led us through the sense of history behind cycling at Stanford, showing us a picture from 1891 during the very first bike boom that started when you could buy a practical ‘safety’ bike. As an advocate for getting people to work safely and efficiently, there’s a multitude of options available. She felt that, instead of seeking for the biggest fastest win, any of them would be a good place to start. Easy steps that get some results can lead to harder steps that require budget. One thing I noticed was that Target started their bike program in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul because the city required them to have a bike room. Eventually, that legally-required bike room led to a larger program that eventually resulted in quite an impressive bicycle commuter share in the Target headquarters, something that they could be proud of.
Facebook hosted the event and used it to show off their bike facilities. I was expecting something akin to what we had when I was at Y!, being a similarly sized campus with a similar set of constraints, but Facebook has really worked hard on their bike facilities. Like many large office complexes in the bay area, they were ‘encouraged’ by the local governments to pursue car alternatives by being required to not have a parking space for each employee.
I’m a little envious that they can work at that large of a scale, because they’ve got enough people that they can keep a warehouse of loaner bikes for the interns, with enough extras so that everybody gets a bike that is the correct size.
The campus is also large enough that it helps to have a system of ready-to-use bikes on a rack so that you can cross the campus faster or perhaps go on a quick exercise jaunt through the baylands. One innovation I thought fairly cool was a long-tail cargo bike set up to transport 4 other bikes, so that they can redistribute bikes quickly and without needing a motorized cart.
They have taken this experience to try and replace all of the other little transportation needs throughout their campus that are normally done either with golf carts or push carts and accomplish them with cargo bikes instead.
Given that this happened in the bay area, where technology is fast to be accepted and many of us work in the field of technology, we spent some time talking about technology. Part of what makes the modern revolution more interesting is that, while the bike has changed and progressed in a few fairly small ways, the world of technology that we can apply to bikes has changed dramatically, thus solutions that didn’t work in the 60s work very well today. Another one of my areas of professional interest besides geeks on bikes is the whole API community that is becoming increasingly tied to the Internet of Things.
As I’m advocating for bikes, I’m also one of those guys (I can’t claim to be ‘that guy’ because Kin Lane is more ‘that guy’ than I) at an API conference or two who had to point out that everybody’s car-centric vision of the Internet of Things needed to be adjusted because it worked perfectly good for bikes and transit, but only if they expand their mind a little bit and apply it to things other than cars.
Take for example sharing of bikes. It’s a good way for visitors from out of town to get around sans-rental-car, a good way to get people to try it out without spending the money on a new bike, and often times a convenient gap-filler in the car-free lifestyle. It can exist on both the city-level and also as a service companies provide to their employees.
A long time ago, bike sharing on a city-level was a guaranteed loss. You put up bikes painted a semi-un-attractive color, with parts that deliberately don’t quite fit normal bikes, and hope that they don’t disappear. In some towns with the right combination of population and civics, it might work… but it’s hard.
More recently, bike sharing became a thing where you could make hard-to-vandalize bikes and hard-to-vandalize fixed bike sharing stations. The Velib system is a shining example of this… but it’s still something designed with the restrictions of ten years ago, not today’s technology.
Again, the unintentional theme was “Start Anywhere” so we ended up talking about which solutions work for which situations.
One thing to remember is that none of these solutions need to be perfect, they just need to be fiscally responsible. It’s OK to have a few bikes go missing out of a large fleet, it’s just not OK to have them disappear too quickly.
There are two pieces to this puzzle. One piece is tracking… the ability to know where a bike is. The second piece is security… the ability to know who has a bike and where they took it and make the bike immovable.
For urban-based companies, you probably need some degree of security so that the bikes can be locked up and you probably also need location information, but you can assume good actors. There are several smartphone-actuated solutions on the way with varying form factors. Consider a U-lock with a solar cell on the shackle so that a user with the application installed on their phone can connect to the U-lock via Bluetooth, authenticate under their account, unlock or re-lock the shackle, and preserve the location.
We also discussed the next generation of bike-sharing. Right now, a bike sharing system for a town needs to give up space for fixed check-out stations. Because this could be used for car parking or even bike parking, this becomes a contentious issue even as it also provides free advertising for the system.
The same degree of functionality that is required to drive a cheap low-end cellphone, when secured inside of the bike, lets you continuously track the bike, squirt the bike’s location to a central server for tracking, and remotely control a lock. Instead of putting the tamper-proof logic in a check-out station, you can put it on the bike and then every lamppost becomes a check-out station. Similarly, if you can track bikes as they move, it becomes easier to send someone to retrieve bikes that have strayed outside of the designated zone. You might not even really need to fully secure the bike, relying on basic human honesty and the ability to send out a guy in a truck the second it crosses a geo-fence.
So maybe, while I’m a bit skeptical about completely station-less bike sharing systems, that extra little bit fills in the gaps. While I’m skeptical about requirements that apply forceful requirements on businesses, maybe local laws that require new construction to be bike-friendly can enact real cultural change. Maybe we really are on the verge of even greater levels of car-free technology.