“The wind at our backs”: An interview with Alta Bicycle Share co-founder Jeff Olson
Alta Bicycle Share has been successful in molding bike-share systems to meet individual city needs and build a culture of sustainable mobility. Photo by aaaronvandorn/Flickr.

Alta Bicycle Share has been successful in molding bike-share systems to meet individual city needs and build a culture of sustainable mobility. Photo by aaaronvandorn/Flickr.

Recently Jeff Olson, co-founder of Alta Bicycle Share, took a moment to sit down for a discussion on bike-share and sustainable urban mobility with TheCityFix. Our discussion spanned Olson’s thirty years of work in the field and his thoughts on the future of sustainable transport.

The future Olson envisions is one where transport is sustainable, flexible, and convenient. And he is confident that Alta’s bike-share systems will play a vital role in creating this future. Read on to learn more about the growth of bike-sharing worldwide, how Alta promotes its bike-share systems, and Olson’s visions for a more sustainable transport future.

How do you envision Alta growing and pushing the envelope when it comes to bike-share?

“I can see the bike sharing movement expanding ten times or more, and it can be lower cost. There can be station-less bikes, light-weight bikes, electric bikes …”

Station-less bikes?

“Yes, there are companies working on new systems that can find where the user is in relation to the bike, guide him or her to it, provide the means to unlock the bike and pay, all via their phone. The technology of bike sharing is relatively new, and there are new technologies evolving.”

Please, do say more.

“We want to go further with these ideas, so that applications like Uber, AirBnB, and Alta will all be integrated, so you can tell your mobile device where you want to go and it can automatically bring up directions to the place, provide different options to get there sustainably, and reviews for things to do and places to stay when you get there. We’re working towards seamless mobility.”

What about for places that don’t have great cellular service, or where people don’t have the means to buy smartphones?

“There are definitely ways to make systems simpler and less technology-dependent to fit within the needs of different cities. For example, Copenhagen operated their original bike share system using a coin that you put into a meter. It is definitely possible to expand this type of lower tech system globally, so we use appropriate technology in the local context.”

So you need to redesign your system with each new city?

“Context really matters – we’ve worked with EMBARQ, the World Resources Institute’s center for sustainable transport in Brazil, Mexico and other countries and while the world is getting smaller, each place is unique. For example, the Danes are currently at 30% of people who take trips by bicycle. In most of the cities in the United States, it’s a success if we get to 3% of trips taken by bike. Different cultures have different mobility patterns and different histories of urban development, and it’s our job to figure out how walking, transit, bicycling and bike-sharing can fit into that. We take the time we need to understand what makes a place unique, we team up with local firms, and we build into our teams people who work there so the final system is a reflection of our goals and the city’s.”

There’s two components of Alta – a design firm and a bike distribution company – which is different than most bike-sharing companies. How do the two fit together?

“We have Alta Planning + Design, which is composed of architects, landscape architects, engineers and planners who specialize in creating walkable and bikeable communities. Then we have Alta Bicycle Share, which deals with the management, mechanics and operations logistics of bike sharing systems. We can be successful because we can take an idea all the way from a plan to the final design and operation. And we can do it effectively, with a lower cost, and with clearer communication. But more than that, we look beyond the bike-share stations to the design of the area around them so that people feel safe riding the bikes and travelling to the stations. We aren’t just creating bike-share systems. We’re creating complete sustainable mobility systems.”

How has this system been used in ways that were radically different from how you imagined when you originally created the system?

“Good question. Let’s see, we had a comedian ride one of our bikes on stage at the Improv. John Stewart and Stephen Colbert both poked fun at it too. I’ve heard of yoga classes and even weddings taking place at our bike-share stations. At Grand Central Station in New York, I’ve seen families have their children pose on the bikes the way they would pose at important statues, which is really cool because it shows the system has become iconic to the city. Then at Fashion Week, the color of the season this year was Citi Bike blue.”

What inspired you to get into this field?

“My background is in architecture, and being able to walk into a building that you created is an unbelievable experience. Seeing people using the bike-share system is much like this. It changes the culture of the city and people’s interactions with each other in a really beautiful way.”

The idea of bike-sharing is pretty new to the mainstream, and many cities have been hesitant to implement systems. Tell us a little bit about your journey to success.

“I spent the past 29 years trying to push a rock up a hill – and finally this year it feels like we’re rolling downhill with the wind at our backs. At first, Mayors didn’t want bike lanes on their streets, and many people in Congress said they would never want to have this in their states, and then having a bike-share system in Washington D.C. has made them want it in their districts too. We used to have to push to put our stations in front of buildings. Now real estate agents advertise that they have a bike-share station close to their buildings. Now I think we’re entering a new era where people want to help the environment through their daily decisions, and they’re attracted to this sharing ecosystem. They want to be social, they want to live in cities, and they see walking, bicycling and bike-sharing as an important part of that. But I don’t want to oversell – we have made millions of trips, but there are still billions of trips out there that need to be made.”

And you and Alta are ready to take on that challenge?

Olson didn’t need to say a word.

Jeff Olson, Principal, Alta Bike Share.

Jeff Olson is a Principal at Alta Planning and Design, where he specializes in greenways, open space, active living, and alternative transport projects. He was a  co-founder and currently serves on the Board of Directors for Alta Bicycle Share, which operates bike-share systems in Melbourne, Australia; Washington, D.C; Boston, Massachusetts; New York City, New York; Chicago, Illinois, Columbus, Ohio, and San Francisco, California.


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