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Roll out the bikes

Baltimore has tried for years to set up a bike sharing service patterned on successful operations in cities like Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Last week, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the city is again seeking a vendor to operate a bike share program after its two previous attempts failed to get rolling. Let's hope the third time around will be the charm.

Bike share programs have long been popular in Europe, but they've been relatively late arriving in the U.S. What they offer is a two-wheeled version of Zipcar, the service that allows drivers to pick up cars and drop them off at unmanned stations around town upon arriving at their destinations. Customers pay an hourly, monthly or yearly fee for the service and can travel as often as they want.

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So why has it been so hard to roll out a bicycle counterpart to that concept in Baltimore? The first time the city tried, in 2010, the program failed before the company running it could launch operations. The same thing happened again last year when the vendor the city had selected to provide the hardware and equipment for the service suddenly went bankrupt.

Whether the city failed to adequately vet the contractors beforehand or just had a run of bad luck isn't clear. But the effect has been to delay a roll-out of the program way past what would seem reasonable given that this is hardly a new idea. If bike share is to work this time, the city clearly needs to think through exactly what it wants from the service and how to achieve that goal more thoroughly than it has in the past.

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In particular, the mayor needs to figure out whether the service is aimed mostly at helping tourists get around downtown or whether it can really become the more robust, environmentally sustainable "transportation alternative" for commuters and local residents, as she suggested last week. It's one thing to provide a charming tourist amenity, quite another to expand capacity on a major mass transit system.

But while the latter is obviously a more ambitious goal, it could be a boon to travelers who need a convenient way to connect the city's existing transit networks with their eventual destinations. If, for example, riders could pick up a bike near their homes, cycle to the MARC train, then leave their wheels at the station while they continue on to Washington, bike-sharing could reduce the need for cars as well as the noise, traffic congestion and air pollution motor vehicles produce.

It's equally obvious, however, that an effort on that scale would require significantly more than the 250 bikes and 25 bike stations the city is presently contemplating.

In Washington, where young millennials zip between home and office with exuberant indifference to the prospect of car ownership, the bike share program has 3,000 bicycles and 350 stations for pick-up and drop-off. That has pretty much assured that there's always a bike available when one is needed and that the drop-off points are spaced close enough together so that riders can usually find one within one or two blocks of where they're going.

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Nor is it a coincidence that the cities with the most successful programs already have highly developed public transit networks that do most of the heavy lifting of moving thousands of people around. They've also developed a more complex and extensive infrastructure of dedicated bike lanes and other road improvements to improve bike safety. Baltimore's transit network still has big gaps in it, especially in the city's poorer neighborhoods, and many parts of town have few if any dedicated bike lanes at all.

With the demise of the proposed Red Line earlier this year, Baltimore certainly should be doing everything it can to create smart, cost-effective ways to move people around and make the city a more vibrant place to live and work. A successful bike share program, even if it starts out mainly as a tourist amenity, as Boston's did, definitely has a future in that mix, and there's no reason Baltimore can't start small by concentrating on the most densely traveled areas, such as around train stations, subway stops and major hospitals and schools, then expand outward from there.

But that's a project that could take years to complete. In the meantime, the bike share concept needs to get a lot bigger and cover a lot more territory in the neighborhoods where reliable transit is needed most. It's unrealistic to expect it to provide a meaningful solution to Baltimore's long-term transportation needs until that happens.

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