Our bike lanes and trails form a pervasive network for cheap, green and convenient transportation. But what about the bikes themselves? For now, it’s BYOB (bring your own bike), though a small cadre of Milwaukee businesspeople is campaigning in favor of establishing a 250-cycle bike-sharing system that would serve areas from Shorewood to Bay View. To succeed, the group called Midwest BikeShare must first contend with the skepticism that customarily dogs bike-share programs. Not all have lived up to their utopian promises, after all. But the latest systems aren’t as unreliable as some believe, supporters say. “Take all the rumors you’ve heard about bike-share programs and cross them off the list,” says Barry Mainwood, owner of the Mainly Editing design firm and a BikeShare member.
New York’s new bike-sharing program, launched early this summer, stumbled over a number of frustrating glitches, though similar systems in Madison, Denver, San Antonio and in European cities have become a familiar part of urban life. In Milwaukee, the BikeShare plan backed by Mayor Tom Barrett and a number of philanthropic foundations calls for a membership system with daily, weekly and annual passes. Have bike designers finally created a reliable way to rent and share cycles in an urban setting? If so, it certainly didn’t happen overnight.
Theft and disrepair plagued the first generation of bike-share systems, which began popping up in cities across Europe in the 1970s. In Madison, “red bikes” circulated in downtown neighborhoods, with one rider passing a cycle to another by leaving it in a public space. In both Madison and in cities across the pond, bikes disappeared, crashed, were modified or looted for spare parts. Proponents sighed loudly on Bascom Hill.
Hoping to encourage more responsible use, a second generation of bike-share systems, which required a coin deposit, evolved in Copenhagen, Denmark. Riders deposited money, causing the locking mechanism to release, and Danish commuters got the currency back when they returned the bike. With such a low cost of entry, however, some of the problems of the first generation persisted, but hope was growing.
A version of the system backed by Midwest BikeShare is made by a division of the Trek company based in Waterloo, Wis. The sturdy “B-Cycles” that BikeShare has brought to Milwaukee have sleek, retro styling and a large metal basket for cargo. Only members wielding credit cards may use the bikes, which are equipped with GPS tracking. Generally, if riders fail to return the bike after a time, they’re charged for it. Has the future arrived?