New York May Become Newest Bike-Sharing Mecca

Nov 14, 2011

New Yorkers spent part of this fall pedaling demo versions of a new bike that may become as common as the city's yellow cabs.

The city has chosen an Oregon company, Alta Planning & Design, to set up a fleet of 10,000 rental bikes.

The contract with New York City is a watershed moment for Alta, but the project won't be funded with any taxpayer money. Alta has to find a corporate sponsor to bankroll $50 million in startup costs, in exchange for naming rights or ads on the bikes. Once the funding is secured, Alta expects to hire more than 200 people in New York to set up and maintain the system.

Jon Orcutt, policy director for New York's Department of Transportation, says the city kept a close eye on how other revenue models have panned out — particularly a big one in the United Kingdom, sponsored by Barclays Bank.

"We clearly took note of London's ability to land a major corporate sponsor. And obviously, we and London are peers in terms of big-market cities with huge numbers of eyeballs on the street," Orcutt says.

And making those 10,000 bikes won't actually create work in New York or Oregon — the bikes themselves will come from a Canadian bike share giant that's having a tough year.

Canada's Public Bike System Company (PBSC) makes heavy-duty, theft-resistant bicycles called Bixis for fleet use. It has run into financial problems as its international business has grown — the city of Montreal recently approved a costly bailout. So the New York City project is not only welcome, it's needed.

PBSC CEO Alain Ayotte says making bikes to export remains an important part of the company's work.

"It was our mandate since the beginning, to share with other cities the research and development we did, and share our know-how in order to pay back the investment we made in research and development," Ayotte says. "That was the model of Montreal."

That research is working in places like Boston and Washington, D.C., where Alta set up successful bike shares using the Bixi system. The Canadian company's partnership with Oregon-based Alta has been good for both parties.

Mia Birk, the founder of Alta Planning & Design, says making her business a player has involved a tremendous amount of transcontinental work.

When she first started doing bike consulting work, she felt pretty isolated. Few people were trained to design the needed infrastructure.

"We had this self-fulfilling cycle going on — these students come out of college in landscape architecture, architecture and planning, grounded in a thinking that everybody's going to drive everywhere," Birk says.

So she started teaching a class at Portland State University. Before long, she had a pool of smart, talented people ready to work on bike projects. She created her own labor pool.

"You have to create a team around you. No one person succeeds alone," Birk says.

She believes funding for the project will come through, knitting the far-flung pieces of the New York City bike share system together.

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