Arian Horbovetz is a Strong Towns member, photographer and blogger. Today we've invited him to share a guest essay on the topic of bike shares and tourism. You can read more of Arian's work at The Urban Phoenix.
I’ve been an enormous fan of rail and bus travel for as long as I can remember. For a modest price, I can travel to cities in New York State while I relax, read, or get work done on the way. Living in Rochester New York, which has an Amtrak and a Greyhound Station within a few hundred feet of each other, it’s relatively easy for me to break the shackles of traveling across the Empire State behind the wheel of a car.
The problem for me and many who enjoy traveling this way is, simply, what do we do when we arrive at our destination? Most train and bus stations are located in downtown areas, making it easy for travelers to access the best of what cities have to offer. However, many city attractions are still several miles away from mass transit, far enough to discourage the average day trip adventurer. Cabs in small Upstate New York cities are expensive, ride sharing like Uber and Lyft are illegal in New York State outside of New York City due to insurance regulations, and local bus systems can be confusing and inconsistent.
So how do we bridge the physical gap between regional mass transit options and city destinations? The answer may rest in the growing movement of bike share.
Over the past decade, bike share programs have spread to cities large and small throughout the United States. The ability to “rent” a bike for as little as a few minutes or as long as a day within a given city at several locations allows residents and visitors the freedom to explore recreational trails, travel to key destinations and enjoy the fun of urban cycling. The community benefits of bike share are numerous, and show a citywide commitment to the physical and mental health of residents.
But perhaps the most underrated and overlooked potential is bike share’s ability to bridge the gap between mass transit and the destinations in cities where they are implemented. To test this application, I traveled to two very different cities in New York State and used bike share as the connector between Amtrak and Greyhound, and the cities they serve. I did this from the perspective of a “weekend adventurer,” armed only with a backpack and a few amenities.
I boarded an early Amtrak train and headed east to begin my adventure. My first stop was in Rome New York, a city of just over 30,000 people, and home to one of New York State’s most enticing historical sites, the Fort Stanwix Memorial, a recreated fort and museum that echoes the stories of early American life and conflict in Central New York.
I disembarked from my train and walked less than a half mile to Bellamy Harbor Park where a rack of Zagster bike share bikes greeted me. Rome is one of countless small cities across the country that are quickly dispelling the myth that bike share is only for large urban areas. A local organization called Positively Rome has been instrumental in bringing the program to the city, and with three racks and 16 bikes, Rome’s effort has raised eyebrows across the state and created excitement in the community.
I easily downloaded the Zagster smartphone app, unlocked a bike and was on my way into town. First, I took a short leisurely trip through Rome’s beautiful trail system, enjoying my bike’s comfortable, sturdy ride.
A little less than a mile later, I arrived at Fort Stanwix, wide-eyed and ready to learn about Central New York’s early history.
While there, I spoke with Stephen Sonne, a bike shop owner in nearby Utica New York. Stephen is also in charge of maintaining Rome’s bike share fleet.
“I think it opens up the possibilities for a visitor to see more in a city in a given amount of time," he told me. "Research shows that one of the number one things that young people look at when coming into an area is cycling availability and infrastructure, so having this kind of service for Rome is very important to the city’s future.”
Stephen touched on an important strength of bike share programs; Bike share can be a sort of “welcome mat” for potential visitors, as well as prospective residents, urging newcomers and locals alike to explore. They can be a source of pride for a community, a clear message for outsiders to “come in and enjoy what we have!”
I toured the monument at Fort Stanwix, taking in the wonderful and informational experience as a true lover of American History. A short while later, it was time to catch my Amtrak train to the next destination, so I climbed back on the bike and pedaled to the train station. To walk to and from the train station to Fort Stanwix, it would have taken me close to an hour each way, but biking cut that travel time to about 15 minutes. Bike share provided me—the day trip adventurer—the opportunity to access one of Rome’s great tourist destinations, as well as its gorgeous trail networks quickly, easily and cheaply; the whole ride cost me a few dollars.
I hopped an Amtrak train back west to Buffalo New York, which, in striking contrast, has a population of over a quarter million. Their new Reddy bike share program powered by Independent Health has 200 bikes at dozens of rack locations throughout the city, not only providing recreational and health benefits, but also viable transportation options for residents and visitors alike.
When I stepped off my train in downtown Buffalo, I was struck by the heat of the 90 degree day. It was a solid 4 miles to my destination, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and while there was a bike share rack just around the corner, I decided to utilize the cool confines of Buffalo’s light rail system to take me part of the way. I arrived at one of the northern stops on the underground line, exited the station and found a Reddy bike rack just waiting for me to make use of it. Once again, it was a simple download of the app, a quick setup and before I knew it, I had an unlocked bike to take me the last mile to my destination.
I toured the stunning museum and even took a spin around nearby Delaware Park, enjoying the rich summer sunshine that we’re not exactly accustomed to in Western New York! I stopped and talked to an older couple visiting from Toronto about bike share and the benefits it has for travelers.
“Since we find biking around towns and cities the very best way to see a new place, I think bike share is the most fantastic thing for a tourist,” said Ian Anderson. “We have found total joy in biking as a way to explore a city we’ve never been to before.”
Ian could not have been more right. As an avid cyclist myself, bike share not only has the potential to get me to where I need to go when visiting a city, it also allows me a slower, more exploratory-based solution to urban transportation. It creates chance meetings with residents and other travelers and allows for the always pleasant spontaneous discovery of a new place or a sight to see.
Before long I cycled back to a bike rack, ended my ride and headed back to downtown Buffalo to catch a Greyhound bus home. My journey to and from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery would have taken me two and a half hours from the train station round trip on foot, and but thanks to the connectivity options of light rail and bike share, it took about 60 minutes.
In one day, I traveled to two vastly different sized cities by train and seamlessly used bike share to bridge the gap between the stations and my tourist destinations. Furthermore, it gave me, the traveler, an opportunity to explore the places I visited at the street level instead of driving by in a speeding vehicle. I was able to stop and talk to people, visit nearby parks and trails and experience sights along the way. As useful as bike share can be as a connective tool for visitors, cycling through a city can also expose the traveler to an urban area in a way that encourages spontaneity and engages the adventurous spirit that lives in us all.
(All photos by Arian Horbovetz)