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Bicycle sharing program explored

Local network linked to Boston

Bicycle commuters traveled through Porter Square in Cambridge. A city official says most people who participate tend to use bike sharing for transportation. Bicycle commuters traveled through Porter Square in Cambridge. A city official says most people who participate tend to use bike sharing for transportation. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/File 2010)
By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / March 24, 2011

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Following Boston’s lead, officials in Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville are kicking the tires on a regional bicycle-sharing program that, if approved, could launch within each of the communities in the next year and eventually expand to Arlington.

But setting up the regional program is complex, according to Nicole Freedman, Boston’s director of bicycle programs, who said that though the city would like to launch bike sharing this year, nothing has been finalized. “It’s essentially trying to start an entirely new transportation system,’’ she said.

The program would allow users to borrow bicycles for short trips and return them at any docking station in the regional network.

Similar programs were launched in Minneapolis, Denver, and Washington, D.C., last year, and have been operating in Montreal and a number of countries in Europe and elsewhere around the world for some time, Freedman said.

Boston has been exploring the idea for two years and had been vying to be the first city with a program in the United States, but city and regional planners pushed the program back because of insufficient funds.

Last July, the federal government awarded $3 million to support Boston’s program, with the money earmarked for purchasing bicycles and docking stations.

Freedman said corporate sponsorships would also be used to purchase docking stations, and she expects membership could reach 5,000 to 10,000 people in the first year.

Washington and neighboring Arlington, Va., have attracted 6,000 members since the regional Capital Bikeshare program started in September, said John Lisle, a spokesman for the district’s Department of Transportation.

Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville officials are working with Boston and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council on the mechanics of the program, said David Loutzenheiser, a transportation planner for the regional agency.

Once the core program is launched, Loutzenheiser said, bordering communities could join. Arlington is already looking into the idea, according to Carol Kowalski, the town’s director of planning and community development. “It’s in the information-gathering stage,’’ she said.

Loutzenheiser said the planning council recently solicited ideas on what to name the program, and Alta Bicycle Share of Portland, Ore., was selected last fall to manage it. Each community would have to work out a contract with the company, he said.

Brookline Selectwoman Jesse Mermell said her town has launched a committee that will consider the cost of the program, as well as likely locations for the docking stations. The stations would house from eight to 20 bicycles, and allow users to swipe cards or pay to rent a bike for the day, officials said.

Mermell said the program’s membership fee could be about $50 per year, or $10 per week, or bikes could be borrowed by the hour for about $5. Trips shorter than a half-hour would be free for members.

If Brookline opts to join, the town would wait for Boston to start the program and then set up its local operation, expected to be in the spring or summer next year.

Mermell said she’s intrigued by the program because it could help improve the environment by reducing greenhouse gases emitted by automobiles, and encourage physical activity that could boost public health.

“It’s potentially a win-win on a lot of fronts that the town is committed to making progress,’’ Mermell said.

But Mermell said Brookline has much greater spending priorities than the bicycle sharing program, and must explore private fund-raising, as well as a liability and safety issues, such as how to ensure the bicyclists wear helmets.

In Cambridge, officials are working “enthusiastically’’ to find a way to make the program work, said Cara Seiderman, the city’s transportation program manager.

“It’s conceivable that we could do it this fall as a best-case scenario; if not, it would be next spring,’’ Seiderman said.

She said the majority of people participating in bicycle sharing in other cities have used the program for transportation. Making bike sharing available in spots such as Harvard Square would be important for commuters, and tourists looking for another way to see the area, she said.

Michael Meehan, Somerville’s City Hall spokesman, said interest is “extremely strong’’ in bike sharing, and Somerville would like to be able to launch its program on a schedule similar to Cambridge’s.

The program would work well with the city’s immigrant and younger residents, and could provide faster connections to areas such as Somerville’s Union Square and Central Square in Cambridge, Meehan said.

“It’s something that we believe is going to work very well as a complement’’ to MBTA service, he said.

Loutzenheiser said he thinks it will be important to get Cambridge involved with the program quickly because of its large student population, and the number of commuter routes over the Charles River not covered by the MBTA’s light-rail service.

In the District of Columbia, Lisle said, the program’s popularity is behind one of its biggest challenges: keeping the stations in outlying neighborhoods stocked with bikes after commuters ride to work downtown in the morning. Lisle said the program also needs to add trucks to shuttle bikes to downtown docking stations after workers head home from work each day.

“It can be hard to keep up with the demand,’’ he said.

Freedman said she believes the Boston program would need about 60 docking stations to start, and that interest should be strong enough to make the program self-sustaining.

“It’s not about cyclists,’’ she said. “It’s about making cycling so inexpensive and convenient and attractive that it is the preferred form of transportation.’’

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.

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