The vast public-transit construction project that’s going on all over the country has contributed to this shift, too. To be sure, older East Coast cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington have subway systems, as do Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. But the public transit in many parts of country has been limited to buses and perhaps surface rail. Now, money is flowing again for transportation projects. The most endearing are streetcars, which are coming back to LA and in the works for Minneapolis, Tucson, Atlanta, Kansas City, and Charlotte. Bigger transit projects are under way as well, like the Second Avenue subway in New York City, the Silver Line subway for Washington, and San Francisco’s Central Subway tunnel.
A bicycle built for you
Transportation advocates would like to go well beyond urban projects and develop a meaningful high-speed rail system for the United States. Early on, Obama named it one of his top priorities, and lovers of the Eurostar and Japan’s Shinkansen crossed their fingers that fast trains might finally be headed for American tracks. There isn’t significant progress yet on that score. Instead, all over the country, a slower, more basic form of transportation is popping up: bicycles.
New Yorkers, used to dodging taxis, maneuvering around tourists, and peering down tracks waiting for subway trains, probably can’t believe what’s happened to Manhattan. The hottest form of transportation in 2013 is the rental bike. Citibank bought the naming rights to the bike-sharing program launched by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the crowning event in his tenure. These systems charge by the hour, or riders can purchase an annual membership (more than 85,000 have signed up so far). This allows them to pick up a bike in one part of town and drop it off when they are finished (there are stiff fines for riding off with one). New York was years behind other major cities in rolling out a bike-sharing program: Boston, Washington, and even Chattanooga, TN, had systems first. But once New York got bike sharing, it suggested the concept had finally taken hold in the US. With the addition of Chicago and the Bay Area Bike Share program in San Francisco, the bike-sharing fleet doubled in 2013, according to the Earth Policy Institute, and it is set to double again in 2014.
Thirty-four cities and 30 college campuses have some kind of bike-sharing system. Again, as with trains and other public transit, the US has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world. Wuhan, China, has more than 90,000 bike-share bikes, versus just 6,000 in New York. Paris, which has the world’s third-biggest bike-sharing system, has a bike for every 97 residents. Bikes are so numerous in Copenhagen that there are dedicated paths with free bike pumps and traffic lights to regulate the cyclists (features that are starting to appear in the US, as well).
Coverage of bike sharing, like many of the other pieces of the driving-light phenomenon, falls into a gray area for news organizations. The stories might show up anywhere from the front page to the metro section to sports. Jackie Douglas, executive director of LivableStreets in Cambridge, says that while the volume of transportation stories is rising, the coverage is broad, not deep. “Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not so great,” she says.
As a transportation advocate, Douglas is frustrated that journalists tend to look for conflict in stories, rather than for the public-service aspect of education and information. “We’ll see someone involved in a fatal bike crash, and it’s prime time news,” she says. “People will point to that and say, ‘Oh, it’s a crazy bicyclist. Were they wearing a helmet?’ as if it’s the biker’s fault.”