By Tom Shevlin
BOSTON -- Bari George rode through the streets of downtown Boston on Monday with a smile plastered across her face.
George, who founded Bike Newport earlier this year with the hopes of making Newport more bike friendly, has been tireless in her efforts, quickly establishing the group as one of Newport's most effective grassroots organizations.
In eight short months, Bike Newport has proven itself to be an influential change agent, hosting a series of successful community events, such as the city's first-ever bike to work day, and the installation of over a dozen custom made bike racks on sidewalks throughout downtown.
Now, the group is eyeing the white whale of cycling advocates: a bike sharing program which they hope will take cars off the street and become a preferred means of public transportation during the summer tourist season.
On Monday, George led a group of seven interested business owners and community members through what amounted to a crash-course in Bike Share 101. On hand were Kathy Staab of the Jane Pickens Theater and Events Center, Allison McNally, Merrilee Zellner of the William Giles Guesthouse and International Hostel, retired Coast Guardsman Jimmy Flynn, and City Councilor Jeanne Marie Napolitano.
The idea is simple: provide a service in which bicycles are made available for shared use to individuals who might otherwise walk, drive, or take a bus to their chosen destination. The bikes, which are checked out and returned at designated stations around the city, are owned and maintained by the system operators.
In Boston, George, along with a small group of Bike Newport committee members, saw first hand that city's experiment with the concept.
Launched this past July, "The Hubway" is the culmination of what has been a years-long effort to transform Boston from one of the least bicycle-friendly cities in the country, into one of the world's premier cycling communities.
The effort is being spearheaded by longtime Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino as part of the his Boston Bikes Program.
Working with MassDOT and MBTA the New Balance Hubway system launched July 28, with 600 bicycles dispersed at 60 stations throughout Boston. Plans are for Hubway to expand into surrounding communities such as Cambridge, creating a single regional bike-sharing system that would be unmatched in the Northeast.
Nicole Freedman is the director of Boston Bikes, and the city's unofficial bike czar.
In addition to overseeing the four-month-old Hubway project, Freedman has been instrumental in installing new bike lanes, promoting community bike rides, and serving as the city's chief cycling advocate.
A former Olympic cyclist, Freedman is petite with a frame that hints to her athletic roots. She also studied urban planning at Stanford, bringing what is perhaps a unique perspective to her job.
Meeting in a conference room on the ninth floor of Boston City Hall, Freedman took the group through a crash course in bike sharing. Like Newport, she explains, Boston features many narrow, historic streets which were not designed to accommodate modern transportation.
“The key is not recreating the wheel,” Freedman begins. Currently, Hubway has 3,400 active members – well on track to sell 5,000 memberships by July 2012.
In Boston, she explains, Hubway users have three different ways to take advantage of the system's 600 bikes: an annual membership, a 24-hour pass, or a three-day pass. Bikes are checked out through a solar-powered terminal using a credit or debit card, and charged based on the hours of usage.
Because of the city's compact nature, most trips are designed to be under 30 minutes, for which non-members are charged $5, while members ride free.
Other cities have implemented a similar price structure, though the initial trip time may vary. For example, other systems might charge a user for the first hour, rather than the first half-hour. It has also become a tourist draw.
"No one comes to Boston and says, 'I had the best time; I got to sit in traffic," Freedman said.
Should Newport succeed in bringing a bike share program to the city, proponents believe it could be a game-changer, positioning the community as a destination for cycling enthusiasts and helping to alleviate the annual traffic crunch that can clog downtown.
But there's more that needs to be done. The city council and administration needs to buy in. So too does the area's tourism and hospitality industry.
Councilor Napolitano said that her son, who lives in Washington, D.C., has been pushing her to explore bringing a bike share program to Newport since that city introduced its Capital Bike Share program.
She challenged Bike Newport to follow through on the excursion and bring a formal proposal to the city.
What exactly that would look like remains to be seen, but George remarked that an ideal situation would be to have a system in place in time for the onslaught of visitors expected for the America's Cup World Series and Tall Ships event.