Boston's Hubway

"Revolutionary" Hubway riders outside of Paul Revere's House in Boston. Photo by City of Boston.

After spending several years abroad focused on Asia’s urban centers, it was heartening to return to find my hometown making progress in sustainable transportation. On July 28, the city of Boston launched New Balance Hubway, the fifth major bike share system in the United States. At its launch, Hubway features 61 stations and 600 bicycles, immediately establishing it as one of the largest bike share systems in the country. According to long-term plans, Hubway could grow to 400 stations and 5,000 bicycles, which would make it the largest bike share program in the United States and second only to Montreal in the Americas. While Hubway’s size pales in comparison to Europe’s and Asia’s largest bike share systems (in Paris and Hangzhou, respectively), the establishment of a Boston bike share system at all is astounding when contextualized against the city’s past reputation.

For years, Boston carried a dubious reputation among cycling enthusiasts. Bicycling Magazine rated Boston among its worst bicycling cities several times and as recently as 2006. Uniting Boston’s latent cycling potential with the city’s green goals, Mayor Tom Menino launched the Boston Bikes program in 2007.  Since that year, the city has added 35 miles of bike lanes and more than 1,600 bicycle parking spaces. The Boston Bikes initiative has also sought to reverse Boston’s cycling culture with several grassroots programs targeting increased ridership. Adding a personal touch, the mayor hosts a free breakfast for all bicyclists at Boston’s City Hall Plaza on the last Friday of each summer month. After only a few years, the results of Boston Bikes are highly positive. From 2007 to 2009 Boston experienced a 122 percent increase in bicycle ridership and as of 2011 has the 10th highest ridership out of 70 of the largest U.S. cities.

Building off Boston’s recent cycling successes, Hubway will further rebrand the city as one of America’s top bicycling cities. Hubway is the latest offshoot of Bixi, Montreal’s bike-share system. While each city employing the Bixi bike share model—including London, Melbourne and Washington D.C.—shares similar technology and infrastructure, funding and pricing is determined on an individual basis. Hubway users purchase annual memberships for $85 and then are granted access to the bikes located at stations across the Greater Boston area.  The bike share is intended primarily for short rides: the first 30 minutes are free but rates rapidly escalate. There are also one-day and three-day memberships available for $5 and $12, respectively. Hubway’s $6 million in startup costs will be covered by federal grants, corporate sponsorships and user fees.

Hubway also boasts world-leading technology and best practices. Hubway stations are powered by solar panels and are semi-permanent; in the winter months, the bike stations will be removed. Smartphone apps are available to alert riders of station availability and bicycles are redistributed periodically in order to keep the docking stations balanced. The Bixi system has also prioritized security issues, such as those that have plagued Paris’ Vélib’ system. With 20,600 bicycles and a daily ridership reaching 150,000 customers, Vélib’ is Europe’s largest bike share system. But it has faced endemic theft and vandalism of its bicycles.  A 2009 New York Times article reported that 80 percent of Vélib’s original bikes had been damaged or stolen. Hubway attempts to prevent theft via technology improvements at its parking stations. The president of Alta Bicycle Share (responsible for the management of Hubway and Washington D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare) boasts that a Ford F150 truck tied to a docked bicycle was unable to dislodge it from the station.

While many Boston residents, myself included, are still overcoming skepticism and disbelief that Boston has transformed itself into a bicycle-friendly urban area, Hubway will still have to overcome interrelated issues of cycling safety, infrastructure and culture. Critics assert that Boston’s narrow and confusing streets are poorly suited for bikers and those unfamiliar with navigating through the city’s labyrinth would pose a danger to others and themselves. Issues also persist regarding Boston’s underdeveloped cycling infrastructure and lack of cycling culture. Although Boston has made great strides in improving its reputation within the cycling community (now ranked 26th nationally), the city still has a long way to go to instill bicycling as a viable commuting option. In 2009, slightly over 2 percent of Bostonians reported commuting via bicycle, a paltry figure but still more than triple the U.S. average of 0.6 percent.

Despite these concerns, initial reaction to Hubway has been overwhelmingly positive and has positioned Boston as an important future innovator in urban transportation. A 2008 Boston Globe article drew comparisons between Boston and Copenhagen, a world leader in bicycle transportation. More than one-third of people in Copenhagen commutes by bicycle, a rate that the government hopes to reach 50 percent by 2015.  However, Copenhagen only began its cycling renaissance in the 1970s, a transformation due to government focus on building bike paths and parking spaces, developing greenways and integrating its cycling system with public transportation. With renewed city government focus, Boston may be at the beginning of its own bicycle transformation. Hubway is a symbol of renewed attention to cycling in the U.S.  If cycling can take off in Boston, it can take off anywhere.

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