Last week I visited Denver for my sister’s marriage to a dashing young pre-med student. On the Thursday before the ceremony, the ladies took the bride out, hitting up a series of bars on South Broadway. As the clock edged towards midnight and our cocktails were drained, a look around the table revealed the sad panda faces of perhaps-at-one-time-buzzed but now-sober-and-exhausted women who had spent their daytime hours working the wedding sweatshop. We decided to call it a night.
Our plan was to hail a cab. But when we walked into the parking lot, we were confronted with a possibly cheaper and potentially way more interesting way to get home: A B-cycle station.
I have long admired Denver’s bike-sharing system, with its bright red branding and sturdy Trek bikes. Without any of the drama surrounding New York’s newly installed CitiBike program, Denver has quickly and elegantly amassed a giant system of attractive and well-integrated kiosks all over the city. You seriously see the bikes, either parked or in action, every few blocks.
It took us about ten seconds—and one Instagram—to decide that we would be riding home that night.
A quick swipe of a credit card and we were on the road. Our pedaling powered lights on the front and back of our bikes, illuminating the bike lanes before us as we rode the completely deserted Denver streets. “We’ll have ours soon!” I shouted ahead to my sister, remembering the promise that we’d have our own system in LA. this summer. “I can’t wait!”
I returned home on Monday to a report that due to a dispute about how to pay for the program, bike sharing isn’t happening in my city until at least 2014. This is a big problem for a place like LA.
My moment in the Denver parking lot represents a conundrum happening in American parking lots every night among people who have consumed a few drinks over the course of an evening. (Hi, drunk people: I’m not talking to you. Take a cab.) My sister and I both had regular bikes at our disposal in Denver and might have planned to ride them out for the night. But having a bike out with you is sometimes like packing an umbrella: It never rains when you remember it, and you always forget it when it rains. If we had taken our own bikes out that night, we would have probably sucked down one too many punch bowls and would have needed a new strategy to drag our soggy livers home—with or without our bikes.
Riding B-cycle home was more about flexibility than anything else—making that last-minute decision to forgo a cab because we could. Denver doesn’t have the comprehensive rail system that L.A. has, and I’m guessing that taking the bus home would have taken much longer than a taxi. Bike share granted me the ultimate freedom to assemble my own route. It’s perfected the short, one-way trip in a way that can truly replace a car. As the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s Eric Bruin mentioned on the KPCC show AirTalk: “If you have any weak links in your transit itinerary, bike share can help fill those gaps and help your entire day be car free.”
Of course, LA is not Denver, and critics of bike share in LA like to say that we don’t have the same bike culture—we’re too big, too sprawly, too hooked on cars. But getting more people on bike share will get more people on bikes. The infrastructural knitting together of the city takes time, of course—we need more lanes, better signage and the ability to easily find bike routes on our phones—but in my case I was rewarded with a new understanding of how long it took to get from the bar to my bed. Seeing the bike share on that corner in Denver and knowing another station was close to our destination created a kind of transportation wormhole, helping me build new connections between neighborhoods so I’m more likely to bike that distance again. It’s a lot like the new pedestrian wayfinding signage New York City has just installed (in many places as part of their CitiBike program, I might add).
The problem with bringing bike share to LA is actually more annoying than it seems—the bikes are usually paid for by including ads on their baskets, wheels and kiosks and the city has a crappy existing deal with outdoor advertisers who don’t want ad competition on the streets (if you don’t know the story, this is the same crappy deal that means advertisers are paying for most of our street furniture). We could get a corporate sponsor, yes, but does L.A.’s brand really feel like a stodgy financial company to you?
But I think in LA, the birthplace of product placement, we could actually do way better than either of those options. Instead of boring print ads, I would challenge entertainment advertisers to create experiences that market their games and movies, celebrate our biggest cultural export and promote biking. Yesterday, I saw a Metro bus covered with Minions advertising the next Despicable Me—how about putting people dressed up as Minions at the kiosks to help you navigate the city as you run your errands? Or giving out free tickets to an upcoming screening when I bike a certain amount of miles? This approach actually makes more sense for our tourist-trampled, industry-slathered streets—and it wouldn’t compete with the existing bus benches and shelters.
Later this week, the bad bike sharing news was followed by a report that rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft were ordered to cease and desist by the city. Plenty of “guess I’ll be drunk driving” jokes peppered Twitter, but there’s a very serious kernel of truth to that. Enthusiastic users of those services who I know will find it very difficult to go back to a taxi after having Uber and Lyft’s more tech-forward, personalized experiences. The truth is that we need more options for getting around LA, period, but they have to anticipate our needs and align with our lifestyles at that very moment.
Since Metro decided last year to run rail lines until 2:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, I’ve seen plenty of people make the switch from cab to Red Line just because they walked out of a bar in Hollywood, looked across the street and noticed the station was still open. True, it’s cheaper, and it can be a lot faster than waiting for a cab on Hollywood Boulevard. If you’ve been on one of those entertaining “last call” trains you know what I mean—I’ll gladly choose rail over cab because it’s more fun. But I can’t wait until the night I can walk out of the Frolic Room and choose to ride home on an LA city bike instead.