UpStarts: How Bikeshares Can Alleviate Our Oil Addiction

UpStart [uhp-stahrt] n. 1. A company or organization with innovative approaches to energy use, carbon pollution, resource consumption, and/or social equity, 2. A company or organization overcoming market barriers to build the new clean energy economy.

by Adam James

“Hello, my name is America, and I have a transportation problem.”

Everyone knows we are addicted to oil — even oil man George W. Bush said “America is addicted to oil” — and that coming up with feasible alternatives to treat that addiction hasn’t been easy.

The biggest cause of our oil dependence is the transportation sector, making up a whopping 71% of total U.S. consumption. Transportation has always been a tough nut to crack, simply because abundant fossil fuels have given people a cheap, easy way to get from place to place.

Not surprisingly, the number of registered vehicles has steadily climbed over the years – currently clocking in at 254,212,610 according to the most recent data. In 2008, transportation overtook the industrial sector as the leading contributor to emissions. In 2010, vehicles pushed an incredible 75,000,000 metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Putting aside the emissions problem (but don’t worry, we’ll come back to it), we are putting an enormous strain on our infrastructure, our wallets and our sanity. About 26 percent of our bridges are “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete,” and when it comes to our roads the American Society of Civil Engineers notes that:

“Americans spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic at a cost to the economy of $78.2 billion, or $710 per motorist. Poor conditions cost motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs. One-third of America’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition and 45% of major urban highways are congested.”

According to ACSE, we currently have a shortfall of $116.3 billion needed to improve conditions. And given that building more roads often just encourages more driving and more congestion, simply constructing more infrastructure for automobiles isn’t the answer.

Bikeshares: The Methadone of Transportation

If only there was a way to save money, offset emissions, stimulate local economies, increase public health and spur the construction of smarter cities. Oh wait, there is. Enter Bikeshare programs. Bikesharing is not a new concept. But in recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of new business models in cities around the country.

Here’s how it works:  a company provides you with access to a bicycle (provided at stations, or in some cases, by other riders) for an annual, monthly, or hourly fee. You hop on, get where you need to go, and leave it at the nearest station.

The Capitol Bikeshare program has already built stations across Washington DC and Arlington; The NY based company Spinlister serves as a forum where owners post their bikes, locations, and prices, allowing for peer-to-peer bikesharing; and the innovative company Zagster’s has partnered with the World Bank to develop a methodology to quantify bikeshare-related carbon credits to be exchanged in the booming international carbon market.

The model is being deployed in countries around the world. Thanks to a wildly successful bikesharing program in Indore, India, 20% of the trips there are now taken via bicycle.

Emissions Reductions

In December the ECF published an excellent study which found that “even taking into account the production, maintenance, and fuel  related to bicycle use, emissions from cycling were over 10 times lower than those stemming from the passenger car.” The study found if EU citizens biked as much as the Danes (2.6 miles a day), 50 percent of their total emissions reduction target would be met.

One report puts the emissions reductions potential in the United States, under a “modest” scenario of increased biking and walking infrastructure, at 33 million tons per year. Additionally, the EMBARQ program has put together a methodology that allows local and regional governments to calculate their exact emissions offsets by exploring alternative transportation options for their cities.

Public Health (and Nicer People)

The health benefits from biking are undeniable. In addition to reducing fossil fuel emissions to clean up our air, increased biking would cut into the record obesity rates in the United States and help prevent “cardio-vascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, and mental disorders like anxiety and depression.” Furthermore, it would make people more polite on the road. One study in Baltimore and Florida showed that bike lines made motorists more likely to give cyclists clearance.

Smarter Cities

In order to upgrade aging infrastructure and address the shift in population toward urban areas, cities must pursue smart, strategic growth. This means reevaluating city ordinances – from traffic laws to zoning – and providing incentives to make cities more bike friendly.

Urban planning experts are taking the smart cities challenge very seriously, and making real recommendations about how to spur change. One such recommendation is to build more bike lanes, which researchers argue leads to more cyclists and less vehicles. An excellent report, released last month, made a comprehensive case that freeways are “simply the wrong design solution for cities” and that the cities that have reconsidered or cancelled their sprawling freeway plans have been much stronger for it.

As we have argued before, bike-friendly infrastructure is also better for local economies. A study released by the Political Economy Research Institute found that cycling projects created 11.4 jobs for every $1 million invested – about 46% more that the car-only road projects. In North Carolina, the study found that:

“Data were gathered through user surveys and bicycle traffic counts to estimate the amount of money that tourists spent during a visit, the total number of tourists, and the proportion of tourists for whom bicycling was an important reason for the visit. The researchers found that, annually, approximately 68,000 tourists visited the area at least partly to cycle. This led to an estimate that $60 million in tourism spending and multiplier effects came to the area in relation to the bikeways, and supported approximately 1,400 jobs.

When confronted with a decision of whether or not to include pedestrian and/or bicycle facilities in transportation infrastructure projects, planning officials should do so, not only because of the environmental, safety, and health benefits but also because these projects can create local jobs.”

Bikeshares are helping cities capture that additional economic value.

The recent explosion in these programs follows a demographic shift in the transportation sector. A recent study shows that young people drive 23 percent less and bike 40% more than they used to. As Grist notes, this is driven by “young people are choosing to live in cities or dense communities with access to public transportation.”

City planners aren’t the only ones that should take note. Investors looking for proven solutions to help alleviate our petroleum addiction and lower our greenhouse gas emissions should too.

Adam James is a special assistant on the energy team at the Center for American Progress.

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3 Responses to UpStarts: How Bikeshares Can Alleviate Our Oil Addiction

  1. fj says:

    It is most important that Climate Progress is covering bikeshares and cycling technology as it is true early stage net zero transit with tremendous potential for responding to the climate change crisis immediately and at enormous scales.

    Nothing else comes close at least in the transportation sector.

  2. fj says:

    I take that back: nothing comes close, period!

  3. fj says:

    Must See:

    Bill Nye explains why the city of the future is bike-friendly