The Brains Behind Bike Share

The nation’s largest public bike share system will open on New York City streets in the summer of 2012. Though that may seem far off, for the New Yorkers who have been working behind the scenes, it’s just a few short months away: their wait started in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower nearly five years ago.

Caroline Samponaro, T.A.’s Director of Bicycle Advocacy, was visiting Paris when they launched their revolutionary bike share system, Vélib, in 2007. With 20,000 bicycles, a pricing structure that rewarded short commute-type trips and hundreds of stations around the city, what Caroline saw became the blueprint for the bike share system that’s coming to New York. Paris had made bicycles into public transit for Parisians, and Caroline set out to give New Yorkers the same new transit choice.

When she came home, her first steps were to ensure everyone in New York City government knew what was happening across the pond. She drafted a series of memos to key agency heads, enlisted a group of Harvard business school students to show how a public bike share system can (and in New York will) be funded without taxpayer dollars, and partnered with David Haskel, then-executive director of the Forum for Urban Design, to launch a small-scale demonstration program to introduce New Yorkers to bike share.

While T.A. and the Forum for Urban Design were painting a beautiful picture of bike share for the public, City agencies started to heed Caroline’s call. According to Jon Orcutt, a former executive director of Transportation Alternatives who became Policy Director for the Department of Transportation under Janette Sadik-Khan, once a few pro-bicycle pieces had fallen into place, it was easier to have a serious conversation about bike share. The parking-protected Ninth Avenue bike lane; the additional 200-miles of lanes built under the Mayor’s PlaNYC program; the double-digit rise in daily bicyclists from 2007 − these all blazed the trail for a public bike share system.

The glue that brought it all together, according to Jon, was a city planner named Kate Fillin-yeh, who wrote what has been called “NYC’s bible on bike share” in 2009. She argued that for a system to truly succeed, it had to “go big or go home.” That’s what Caroline saw in Paris, and with 10,000 bikes planned for the first stage, it’s what will make New York’s program such a success.

“A huge number of New Yorkers live in close, bikeable proximity to work,” Kate told Reclaim. “Our existing transit network is great, but it was really important to see the limits, like cross-town travel, and how another option could really help people get around.”

Kate is now in charge of the DOT’s bike share outreach. Her team has been putting on demonstrations since the program was announced in September and visiting community boards around the city to introduce the program and seek their input.

“The DOT’s outreach is critical. But the most exciting thing is if New Yorkers participate, they can have a say in how bike share works,” Caroline told Reclaim. “New York City’s newest form of public transit can be the product of New Yorkers’ voices, but only if we all speak up.”