For the past several years, University students have led an initiative to pressure University regents and Ann Arbor City Council members into investing in a bicycle-sharing program for the city of Ann Arbor and University campus. Bicycle-sharing programs — also known as “smart-bike” programs — aim to provide bicycles to those who do not own them by constructing several bicycle rental stations around a city or campus. The main goal of bicycle-sharing programs, at least according to its advocates, is to increase alternative transportation and make it cheap, accessible, easy to use and fun. While bicycle-sharing should be an eventual goal for both the city of Ann Arbor and University, it is not realistic at this time. There is one vital piece missing from the puzzle: bicycle infrastructure.
Ann Arbor bike-sharing advocates point to Madison, Wis. and Boulder, Colo. as cities with successful smart-bike programs. Madison and Boulder, like Ann Arbor, after all, are mid-sized cities with large public universities. When it comes to bicycle infrastructure, however, Madison and Boulder take the cake. Both cities feature a plethora of well-designed on-road bike lanes, designated bike paths and multi-use paths and offer bicyclists official bicycle maps to point out which route to take to get to their destination. Ann Arbor’s infrastructure, on the other hand, consists of a sparse and random collection of on-road bike lanes that end abruptly and basic walking-oriented sidewalks that force bicyclists to dangerously swerve between pedestrians.
If a bike-sharing program were to be introduced in Ann Arbor today given its current bike infrastructure, the program would go down in flames. Much like an incomplete game of connect the dots, Ann Arbor bike rental stations would serve no feasible purpose without an organized system of bike lanes and paths to get from one station to another. City hall would receive an abundance of user complaints about the program’s inaccessibility and the lack of practical routes. Most importantly, the city and University would be down several million dollars due to an ill-advised investment in an idea in alternative transit rather than a cohesive system of implementation. Bicycle sharing is an important objective in Ann Arbor’s alternative transportation plan, but the city and University must first connect the dots.