One of the questions I get, as a bike advocate in one of the most bike-friendly cities in the US, is, "Why doesn't Madison have a bike sharing program?"
I'm not really sure of the answer, but I have a good guess. Here's what I tell people about the situation in Madison: There's no space for the racks that would hold the bikes.
Yes, that seems like a silly reason for not having this program in place, but it is a serious obstacle. Madison has so many private bikes, and such a shortage of racks in high-demand areas - the exact areas where you'd want to put a bike sharing location - that there's no space for the racks for the program.
This is the same reason you don't have a car rental parking lot in the middle of a busy city. These lots tend to be on the edge of town, at airports, or maybe at existing car dealerships. The parking in a dense city is just too valuable to allocate it to a private use like a bike sharing or car rental program. Cities need to make the available spots as efficient and open to all as possible. (OK, Madison could do a better job of managing its bike parking, but that's another blog post.)
For those not familiar with bike sharing programs, here's a quick primer. Think of it as a cross between Community Car (or Zip Car in other cities) and those luggage carrier rentals at airports. You walk up to a rack on the street, pay for one of the bikes in a special rack, remove the bike from the rack, ride it around or to a destination, and then return the bike to any of the racks around the city. You don't have to return the bike to the same rack, so you can ride the bike to an appointment or destination and then pick up a different bike when you want to go somewhere else.
Bike-sharing programs are great for either transportation bicyclists people that don't have their bikes with them - visitors, transit and driving commuters running a quick errand - or for people that normally don't use a bike for transportation, but want to go for a ride - tourists, novice riders, the timid, or just the curious. It's a way to provide access to a bike for a short period of time, from five minutes to one day.
There are several programs operating in the North America, and others around the world. There was a recent blog post for the Milw. Journal-Sentinel about the Bixi program in Montreal. A larger operation is the B-Cycle program, currently in Chicago, Des Moines, Louisville, Denver, and San Antonio.
So what about Madison?
Well, as I said, it's a space issue. To make these programs work, you have to have a bunch of these special racks scattered around town, racks that are sort of chunky and take up a lot of space. And the racks can't be used to lock up other bikes, both because they must be available for return of the special bikes, and because they just aren't those type of rack.
The locations that would be most logical for these racks, the places where people are most likely to want to borrow and return bikes, are also the locations currently lacking in adequate bike parking for the general public: around the Capitol, State St, campus, Willy St, Monroe St, etc. Where are we going to put these rather large racks without evicting other uses? And it's not just public bike racks that take space, but also benches, sidewalk cafes, trash containers, planters, street signs, etc. All those are perfectly good and legitimate uses, but they each take up space, and there is only so much space.
However, this is not a problem without a solution. Madison could have a bike sharing program, and could find space for all the uses, but it's just not as easy as in some cities. In downtown, both public and bike-sharing racks could be located in (car) parking garages. Private businesses may want to sponsor a rack and put a bike-sharing kiosk in their garage, especially those locations that the public currently uses anyway, like Block 89.
We cold also replace some on-street or surface (car) parking with space for bike parking, sidewalk cafes, benches, etc. A curb-side car spot could probably fit a 8-10 normal bikes. Wow! Think of all the additional customer parking for those businesses in the area!
Just like car parking, the public bike parking spots must be visible for users to find them. Private (or bike-sharing) spots can be a bit more hidden, because the users will either actively seek out the spots, or already know where they are. A private (car) parking ramp doesn't have to have a big sign, because it is mostly used by employees, or people going to a specific spot with instructions on where to park.
I think bike sharing would be incredibly successful in Madison. It's easy to bike in Madison, often biking is faster than any other transportation mode, and lots of people want to go for a ride, but don't have a bike with them right that minute.
So, the question comes back to, "How much do we want or need a bike-sharing program, and what is the City willing to give up or move around to make it work?"