WASHINGTON — As gas prices continue to take a toll on Americans' pocketbooks, a growing number of people are embracing a more old-fashioned, cheaper and greener way of getting around: bicycling.
And an increasing number of U.S. cities are starting bike-sharing programs for a range of environmental, health and economic reasons. Cities across the country — including Washington, Chicago, Miami Beach, Denver and Des Moines, Iowa — launched bike-sharing programs last year. Boston and New York plan to start their own later this summer.
Most programs enroll members who pay small monthly or annual fees and then are able to rent bikes for either a limited number of hours or a whole day. Nonmembers often can buy daily passes.
Bicycles are healthy, they don't pollute and they're relatively cheap. Cities also find that bikes help cut down on traffic congestion and boost their economies by getting more people to patronize local businesses.
The U.S. embrace of bike-sharing follows European cities such as Rome, Paris and Barcelona, Spain, which were pioneers of such programs.
"People are interested in other forms of mobility, and bike-sharing makes it possible for people to take short trips without having to necessarily gear up in full bike gear and deal with trying to park the bike safely," said Susan Shaheen, a transportation scholar at the University of California at Berkeley.
Surveys of some program users show that many of the most active members are ages 25 to 35 and they use the bicycles to commute to work or pedal for leisure on weekends.
Washington launched Capital Bikeshare last September. More than 1,100 bikes and 118 stations are now part of the system, and at least 500,000 rides have been taken so far.
Government funding is one reason that these programs have thrived. The federal Department of Transportation pitched in with a $4.8 million grant to help get Capital Bikeshare rolling.
In an emailed statement to McClatchy, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood touted his department's work promoting bike-sharing and other alternatives to driving:
"Through our programs, we have funded new bike lanes and paths and have supported the development of bike-sharing programs to improve opportunities for people to get around safely and conveniently on a bicycle."
The high price of gasoline is a prime motivator for many bikers.
"Some of the main reasons we hear about people joining Bikeshare or biking in general is the cost of gas. That is not going to go down anytime in the future, and it will only keep getting worse," said Chris Holben, a program manager for Capital Bikeshare.
Mike Schmitz, 25, who works as an international trade consultant in downtown Washington, has used Capital Bikeshare for two months. He rents a bicycle several times a week. "It's an easy way to get around the city. It's a lot quicker than walking and even taking the Metro," Schmitz said, referring to Washington's subway system.
At a news conference in May, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sounded enthusiastic about his city's initiative: "Every city I've talked to mayors in around the world, it's one of the most popular things they've ever done. I would expect it to be popular here."
Minneapolis started a program last June called Nice Ride, which now has 700 bikes and more than 70 stations and has logged more than 100,000 trips in its first year of operation. It recently expanded into Minneapolis' twin city of St. Paul.
Bill Dossett, the program's executive director, said Nice Ride had been a huge success in part because "40 percent of the trips people take in a city are under 3 miles, and the bike is the best tool for that.
"The basic idea of it is a great one, and the technology advances that have happened in the last five years have just made it so much easier and possible to secure the bikes and keep them more maintained."
Dossett said he got at least five calls a week from officials in other cities seeking advice on how to get their own bike-sharing programs rolling.
Zach Schaap, 25, an advertising graphic designer, uses Nice Ride daily to commute to work and has become an avid fan. He even sold his car last year.
"Nice Ride simplifies the biking experience. It's reliable and simple, and it engages you with your community," he said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2011