By now everyone has seen the green bicycles with the Hulu labels on the front, which are zipping everywhere in our city. Conceived over 6 years ago, these bikes are part of the City’s Breeze program which is now 6 months old and is probably the most successful program to try to reduce traffic congestion the City has ever attempted because it has a credible chance to displace a significant number of automobiles. The Breeze program is now old enough that we can begin to see its impact and also hazard a guess as to how it might benefit the city in the future.
Our city is perfect for bicycles being relatively flat and blessed with a very mild climate. Bicycles are most efficient form of transportation ever invented, because they leverage our anatomy to cover quickly long or short distances with minimal effort, are fairly easy to store, are quiet, easily repairable with hand tools, can carry moderate loads, and are relatively cheap to buy. Their major downsides are, of course, safety and convenience, and one must be physically able.
There are currently 500 Breeze bikes in service distributed at 76 curbside stations called hubs (see map here). These hubs are serviced by nine hard-working bike techs and four “balancers” (who redistribute the bikes to keep all the hubs fully stocked) under direction of Kyle Kozar, the City’s bicycle guru. The hubs are concentrated mostly downtown and the major boulevards, but if the stations were evenly sprinkled through out the city, every Santa Monican would be within about a third of a mile, or about three blocks, of a bike hub. This is a fairly good distribution, but to get a higher level of participation, station proximity could be increased. For example, to put every Santa Monican nominally within two blocks of a hub, we would need to double the number of hubs. There is a utilization tipping point between the number of hubs in denser neighborhoods, and more remote bike stations, where in single-family neighborhoods you might find relatively more privately owned bikes being used and stored in private garages.
The storage of bicycles is actually a big consideration as to their convenience, particularly as many people are living in smaller and smaller apartments. For those small apartment residents, having access to a rental bike nearby, adds substantially to their usable space. The City’s new zoning codes addresses this issue by requiring both new commercial and residential buildings to provide bike parking for every unit and in larger projects showers and changing rooms. New residential projects are required to provide one dedicated bike parking space per bedroom and a minimum of two bike spaces (or 10 percent of the unit count) for visitors. The net result of these new codes is that the required bike spaces now total about the same as the required car parking spaces. But the number of new buildings, with these desirable code requirements, is still relatively small compared to the number of residents who are in older buildings trying to find a convenient and secure place to store their bike. For those residents, Breeze is a major benefit.
Safety is the biggest issue for both privately owned and rented bikes. Completely separating bike and cars is the best way to increase bike safety and equally important, the perception of bike safety. The problem, in our densifying City, with its 140 year old street grid, is how to weave in the separated bike paths while the widening of sidewalks, bus lanes, left turn lanes and even the Expo Line are all competing for the same shrinking transit corridor. The City has an excellent network of 107 miles of bike lanes which is slowly growing, and must keep growing. For example the new Expo Line has a dedicated bike path along half its length in Santa Monica. In lieu of completely separating the cars and bikes, green painted lanes are the next best thing, particularly if drivers become more accustomed to their presence as a signal to be extra aware of bike riders. The City is planning to spend $2 million on green bike lanes on 17th Street to feed the Expo Line station near Memorial Park. Finally the real and perceived increase in bike safety, will allow more children to ride safely to school. Thus the peak hour traffic of parents dropping their kids off at school (or older students driving to school) can be potentially reduced. In our long term weaning from the addiction to cars, starting riding a bike as a young person is our best long term investment. If young people are used, from an early age, to using bikes as the default option instead of cars, our City’s traffic can be substantially reduced in the future.
One of the major benefits of bikes is their flexibility. From cargo bikes to electric bikes, to bike tricycles, they can be adapted to many ages and purposes. The Breeze bikes, however, are designed for a universal user. For example, some people feel they are too heavy, but that is because they have to be robust for their street use and for carrying their “smart” module that allows you, for instance, to report repair problems directly from the bike or for Breeze to know where the bike is (some have even been retrieved as far away as Malibu). Likewise, for some users the handle bars feel too close together. Again, these bikes will not be perfect ergonomically for every size user, but with their adjustable seat, they will be reasonably comfortable for the vast majority of users. Finally their front basket may be too small. In the next generation of bikes, the basket should big enough to fully seat a standard grocery bag (right now they are about an inch too small).
These are minor considerations — the bikes have been embraced by a vast majority of users. Currently each bike is being used on average of twice a day. On peak days, each bike is being used an average of four times a day, which is an amazing utilization rate. However, even if we were to use an average of twice a day (1,000 rides), that is a substantial number of cars taken off the road. While it‘s hard to calculate exactly the reduction, we can assume possibly 50 percent of those rides would have otherwise been in cars (including Uber); the rest might have been on buses, by walking or not have occurred at all. Those putative 500 cars represent a huge fraction of, for example, the 1,092 parking spaces for the six large downtown mixed-use projects totaling 568 units approved in the last year. Again, while the actual reduction is difficult to measure precisely, the order of magnitude is of a size sufficient to have real leverage.
Breeze is now tweaking slightly and simplifying their fare structure based on the learning of the first 6 months of operation. One of the original debates in setting up the original fare structure (of membership, of paying by time or how much “free” time you are allowed), was whether it should favor the visitor (who might be willing to pay more) or the resident. The current users are now three-fourths locals and one-fourth visitors, which tells us it is well within the affordability of residents.
Breeze has been an unqualified success, and SMa.r.t. agrees with Michelle Glikert, Santa Monica’s Bicycle Planning Director, who said, “Give it a try.” We hope you do.
Mario Fonda-Bonardi for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow