As New York City recovers from Sandy, one of the problems for city dwellers is simply getting to work. Hundreds of outer-borough residents stood in lines to catch buses or ferries into Manhattan or find a car looking for an extra passenger to meet temporary minimum occupancy rules imposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The hassle left at least a few commuters wondering if the city’s bike-sharing program, which was supposed to begin this summer but was delayed until at least next spring, might have helped. “If NYC had implemented the bike share, the post Sandy transportation mess could have been avoided,” Wall Street Journal reporter Reed Albergotti suggested on Twitter yesterday. That’s an overstatement, but 7,000 bikes at 420 stations—many of them in exactly the areas hardest hit by power outages and the lack of subway service—probably would have helped.
“It would really be a great complementary mode for people to get around in a safe way and not have to worry about traffic congestion,” says Paul DeMaio, founder of MetroBike and a consultant on Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare system, which was rolled out in 2008. In D.C., DeMaio says, bike sharing has proved useful in the aftermath of Sandy, as well as during past disruptions to the transportation network. Capital Bikeshare closed for about 36 hours during Sandy to keep riders from attempting to brave the dangerous weather, but it was back up about an hour before the city’s public transit system. “As soon as we flipped the switch back on, it was being very well used,” says DeMaio. In August 2011, when an earthquake rattled the city and left many commuters looking for a way around snarled traffic, Capital Bikeshare experienced a 34 percent increase in trips per day. “We had just a few bikes that were kept beyond 24 hours. People were respectful of the service, and they were able to use the service to get home to their loved ones.”
Alta Bicycle Share, the company that runs D.C.’s system, will also operate New York’s. Its solar-powered stations do not rely on the grid for bike check-in and return, and they have proven resilient in storms. “Our stations have made it through a couple of hurricanes now where we’ve had wind gusts up to 75 miles per hour,” says DeMaio, who notes that the planned solar towers at stations in New York, unlike in D.C., do not have overhanging panels and would probably perform even better in high winds. (Alta Bicycle Share has not responded to an e-mail requesting comment.) Bike shares are not a “panacea” says Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for cyclists in New York, but they do provide another failsafe. “What we’re seeing in the last couple days in general about biking is that it really adds to the resilience of the city’s transportation system,” says Budnick. “I’m standing on the Manhattan Bridge right now, and I’ve never seen bike traffic like this.”