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‘Free’ Bikes Can Lead the Way Forward

June 05, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

During the six-week Metro Transit drivers strike in 2004, the Taxpayers League of Minnesota proposed shutting down the system for good and buying used cars for regular riders. This was in the league's Merry Pranksters phase, and the idea wasn't taken seriously outside of right-wing echo chambers.

Of course, the wacky plan also suffered from logical cluelessness and fuzzy fiscal math. It was prompted by the absence of feared traffic gridlock during the walkout, which "proved" that transit did nothing to alleviate that problem. The solution, however, surely would have amped up congestion if fully implemented. But even the Pranksters were willing to ration free cars to only 10,000 people while the system averages two-way ridership of well over 100,000 every day of the year.

And don't get me started about the effects on low-income budgets of maintaining all those "free" motorized money pits.

Ten years later, though, a smart-looking alternative to the Pranksters' brainstorm is being tried in Sweden, the source of so much of Minnesota's cultural and public policy identity. Gothenburg, the nation's second-largest city with more than a half-million residents, offered free bicycles to commuters who pledged to leave the car behind at least three days a week.

Unlike the Taxpayers League's huge giveaway, Gothenburg's is built on Nordic fiscal sternness, limited so far to 36 pilot "test cyclists." The free riding lasts just six months, too, at which point the participants will have a chance to buy the bikes at a discount. The test vehicles include cargo tricycles, compact fold-ups and even two-wheelers with electric boost.

Gothenburg already has a bicycle commuting rate on par with that of U.S.-leading Portland, Ore., but leaders there think the program could lure many of the 90 percent-plus who don't yet pedal.

"We're trying to create those good examples -- people from many different groups in the population who can all solve their daily transport with bikes," Rickard Waern of the sponsoring Energy Agency of West Sweden told blogger Adele Peters. "In some cases it can be challenging to use a bike [but] this can be more a mental barrier than a real one."

With the right equipment and a bit of planning, he added, most people can shop, take toddlers to preschool and get to work with pedal power. "One commuter even took a folding bike on a business trip," Peters reported. And she quoted a test rider saying: "Since I got my new trike, I do all my errands around town with it. The car gets to stay in the garage."

How much sense does this make? Compared with freebie cars, it's scalable, affordable for recipients, the start of a real solution to auto congestion and collision casualties, plus healthful for riders and the environment alike.

Across America, bicycle commuting has increased by 60 percent in the past decade, according to the Census Bureau's latest American Community Survey. "In recent years, many communities have taken steps to support more transportation options, such as bicycling and walking," noted the Census Bureau's Brian McKenzie. "For example, many cities have invested in bike-share programs, bike lanes and more pedestrian-friendly streets."

Places that ignore this positive trend may suffer the consequences. In a new report, WISPIRG attributes a Wisconsin "brain drain" to our neighboring state's autocentric policies, greatly increasing highway spending while cutting that for other modes. 

And a recent report from PeopleForBikes and the Alliance for Biking & Walking touts the advantages for business of 21st century bicycling infrastructure such as protected lanes in right-of-way. Such improvements enhance access and thus urban real estate values, attract rather than "drain" talented workers, contribute to a more active, healthier workforce and multiply sales.

According to studies cited in the report, the median home value in Minneapolis-St. Paul increased by $510 for every quarter-mile nearer to an off-street bicycle trail, and retail sales per square foot of bike parking were more than triple that for auto parking. So it's no wonder that two-thirds of merchants along San Francisco's Valencia Street said their business picked up after driving lanes were reduced and bike lanes and wider sidewalks installed. Just 4 percent said the changes hurt sales.

Whether many drivers' reluctance to try biking is based on "mental barriers" or real ones such as a lack of safe, pleasant pedaling routes, a little nudge from public policy such as the Gothenburg experiment, along with infrastructure improvements, would be a wise investment in a better transportation future.

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