In 2011, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's chief of staff, Yarone Zober, spent three days biking around Minneapolis with two of Pittsburgh's strongest cycling advocates: Scott Bricker, executive director of the nonprofit BikePGH, and Steve Patchan, the city's bicycle-pedestrian coordinator.
The three men used bikes acquired through Minneapolis's Nice Ride bike-share program, and after Zober's return, city officials began seeking funds to launch bike-sharing here. Last month, they reached their $3 million goal for startup funding, thanks to federal grant money and private support. Planners now hope to launch Pittsburgh's program by the summer of 2014.
"It dawned on me that [bike-sharing] applied to more than just cyclists," Zober recalls. "This was about changing a transportation culture in a city."
Bike shares work much like car-sharing memberships: Members can check out a bike from one location and return it at another location. Memberships typically cost between $60 and $100 a year; rental fees may also be charged on usage.
The bike-share program will increase the number of cyclists on city streets: City planners expect to start the program with 500 bikes at 50 stations across the city, and predict an additional 250,000 bike trips in its first full season in 2015.
And, bicycle activists say, changing the perception of cycling in the city — as the Minneapolis experience did for Zober — is potentially the most powerful promise the bike-share program holds.
Pittsburgh's cycling community is growing already: 1.6 percent of the city's population commuted by bike in 2010, up threefold since 2000, according to the U.S. Census. But tensions between motorists and cyclists have also increased. As City Paper reported in December, 2012 was the most dangerous year on record for city cyclists, topped by the deaths of two cyclists hit by motorists within a single week.
But Patchan says the new cyclists should make the streets safer. In other cities with bike shares, he says, crashes decrease as the number of cyclists increase.
"Motorists become more sensitized," Patchan says. "They expect cyclists. [They] become more used to sharing the road." New cyclists, who also drive, tend to develop new appreciation for the rules of the road, he adds.
Bike shares also broaden the interest in cycling by targeting non-enthusiasts — primarily commuters, tourists and others interested in shorter urban trips.
Zober says "people Downtown might think it's a hassle to go to the Strip District for lunch," since walking, taking a bus and finding parking all take time. "If you can get on a bike, you can be in many, many different communities within five or 10 minutes. I see the potential of this program in making the city more accessible."
Organizers also hope bike-sharing will extend the reach of the Port Authority, filling gaps between bus, work and home. Planners are considering a combination transit/bike-share pass.
Having a larger and more diverse cycling community could also boost the effectiveness of groups like BikePGH.
Cyclists have already "started to see some real progress," Bricker says, citing the growth of bike lanes and signage. With bike-sharing, "We're going to be attracting a lot of new people."
Indeed, Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, says bike-sharing "is a game-changer" at reshaping the public debate.
Washington, D.C.'s bike-share program — the first in the country — started with 120 bikes in 2008. It now has more than 1,600 bikes; last month, it set a new ridership record when nearly 10,000 people used it in a single day.
"When the system came online, all of a sudden, the bikes were everywhere — perfectly normal people doing perfectly normal things on these visible red bikes," Clarke says.
As a result, he says, cyclists are part of the mainstream conversation on transit issues.
Bike-sharing, Clarke says, "takes us out of the realm of a special-interest group."