Via Wired Magazine, a nifty idea from Lyon, France: a rent-a-bike program that lets subscribers borrow a bike for just over a dollar an hour.  The first half hour is free—which makes the service ideal for people who want to make short jaunts downtown, but don’t want to lug their bicycles with them wherever they go. Impressively, the service attracted 15,000 subscribers within the first 3 months.

As the article notes, the service was costly to set up, largely because the billing system and anti-theft provisions are pretty high-tech.  But those things were important.  Free bike sharing programs (including ones in Amsterdam and Portland, Oregon) had run into problems—not enough money, or too many “free riders” abusing the system by hoarding the nice bikes.  The French system seems to have safeguards in place to prevent those problems; if you don’t return your borrowed bike within 24 hours, the service keeps your $180 deposit.

The Northwest already has car-sharing programs (such as FlexCar in Seattle and Portland, and the Cooperative Auto Network in BC) that work on the same basic principle.  But it seems that there are only a handful of neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest in which a commercial bike sharing service makes much sense; since much of our urbanized area consists of fairly low-density sprawl with minimal bike-friendly infrastructure, demand is probably too low to justify the startup costs.  Still, it’s worth keeping in mind, for two reasons.   First, it may work well in particular neighborhoods in or around our major cities, particularly as they attract new residents.   And second, it’s a nifty example of how new technology can turn a previously unworkable idea into a practical one—a lesson that applies well to other kinds of innovations (did someone say “congestion pricing“?)