OpEd: Building a Better Bike Culture

Nick Helmholdt is the operations manager for ArborBike, the city of Ann Arbor's bike share program. His hobbies include cycling, homebrewing, and designing games. Nick is a member of the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild and serves on the Chelsea Planning Commission.

For the past four years at Clean Energy Coalition he has developed energy-saving programs with municipalities, business owners, and homeowners across the state. While earning his bachelor's degree in urban and regional planning from Michigan State University, Nick studied urban redevelopment in Germany and Austria. He also holds a master's degree in applied research in human environment design from Cornell University.

Why We Need to Pedal to the Store

Fifteen years ago I rode my bike for a week along the Cumberland & Ohio Canal with my Boy Scout troop. Our journey ended in Washington, D.C. where our exhausted and loud group joined the hordes of sightseeing tourists. But we made a huge mistake: we packed away our trail-proven bikes. Since then, the D.C. metro area has demonstrated that major North American cities can incorporate cycling into transit infrastructure through bike sharing. Even with a robust multi-modal transit network, without bicycles as a component of that network, getting from point A to point B became a challenge.The regional Capital Bikeshare is among the most successful bike share programs in the world, and it stands as an example for cities like Ann Arbor to follow.

I believe that it's time for Ann Arbor (and all of Michigan) to embrace biking and walking as legitimate parts of our transportation infrastructure. (There are several authors who make this point more powerfully than me, including Jeff Speck and Elly Blue.) A bike share program is only one piece of a transportation system that encourages active transportation – a well-designed network of complete streets and facilities that aid walkers and bikers must also exist. Our city has a real opportunity to transition toward human-scaled development and reap the economic, environmental, and health benefits that come along with biking and walking. 

As the operations manager for the upcoming ArborBike program, I get all sorts of questions about bike sharing (and bikes in general). Here are a few answers to what bike sharing is, and what it's not.

Bike Share is Fun!
Cruising around town at 10 miles per hour is a blast. Suddenly, the range of destinations you can access without a car expands to include vast new neighborhoods. Those destinations you avoided because of the headache of parking now feel like they are only a few pedal strokes away. The old excuses for staying away from State Street or Main Street or South University suddenly evaporate. 

Bike Share is Safe
The November 4, 2013 New York Times headline read "No Riders Killed in First 5 months of New York City Bike Share Program" which may have felt like a minor miracle to the program's critics. Evidence shows that bike share riders are a safe bunch around the world. This is largely due to the phenomenon known as "safety in numbers."  As more cyclists use city streets, drivers slow down to compensate. This makes city streets safer for pedestrians and all other cyclists. (If you're a transportation geek, you can check out the 2003 academic study by Peter Jacobsen that first suggested this hypothesis.) 

Bike Share is Not Bike Rental
Some of my friends flew out to Oregon this summer with a plan to bike around Mount Hood. To avoid the hassle of boxing and shipping their bikes (which they dearly love) they decided to rent from a local shop. If the bike ride you're planning will take you far outside of the city, then you should find a bike-rental provider (typically a bike shop). If your destination is over four miles from the nearest bike-share station, then you ought to consider another mode of transportation. It's important that shared bikes stay in circulation for everybody to use. 

Bike Share is a Great Deal
I like to think I know a thing or two about being cheap. Compared to either the cost of parking or cab fare, bike-share membership is a huge bargain. For a flat annual rate, you can use ArborBikes to run errands, meet friends, and go about your daily life in downtown Ann Arbor. I've done the math on this and if you work, play or reside in the city it will make sense financially to use bike share. 

Bike Share is not a Secret Government/Illuminati/French Conspiracy to Destroy the Auto Industry
Really, it's not. Bike share supplements your existing transportation options – such as walking, driving, and public transit.

Bike Share is Good for Your Health & the Environment
The old saying goes: "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". In the face of chronic diseases that result from a sedentary lifestyle, even short bike trips can help prevent some of the worst maladies. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin came to this conclusion:

"They found that if the Midwesterners ran half of their short-distance errands by bike rather than by car, 1,100 deaths would be avoided each year, and $7 billion would be saved in reduced health-care costs. The trips were 2.5 miles one way; less than a 25-minute bike ride, the researchers figure."

What's more, bikes don't contribute to air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions.  Calories are the only thing you'll burn on an ArborBike. As more people choose to replace car trips with bike trips, drivers will get some relief from traffic congestion, which also reduces air pollution levels. 

If you're still not sure what exactly bike share is, you'll have the opportunity to experience it first hand this summer. Stay tuned to our Facebook, Twitter or email list for up-to-the-second information about ArborBike.