Word came out this week that Hubway hopes to extend its services all year round beginning as soon as December 2013. Currently the popular bike-share system operates three seasons out of the year, locking everything up come winter for both financial and logistical reasons.
“There’s a desire on the part of many of the people involved to have it year round,” said Jessica Robertson, transportation coordinator for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which helped Hubway launch in Boston and expand outward this past year. “I’m hopeful that we can figure out a way to do it.”
Standing in their way are several speed bumps, most notably the potential cost of adding approximately three months of service onto a system that hadn’t initially budgeted for it. Then there are the real concerns that come with retroactively tailoring an infrastructure for the season that it never meant to see. All of the on-street stations, for example–like many located in downtown Boston–would have to be kept closed or moved to allow space for snowplow operation.
Toronto’s BIXI bike-share program has been an apt case study, as it opened there the same year Hubway opened here, but offered its services through the winter for the first time last year. While it has reported success, Robertson says, it, like seemingly everywhere else, had a particularly mild winter.
If Hubway is up and running next winter, users can expect noticeably fewer stations, both to allow room for plows as well as the opportunity to keep up with cleaning the dirty snow off the inventory. And in cases of severe weather conditions–major snowstorms, for example–the entire system can be shut down remotely, allowing for bikes to be returned but not taken out.
On paper, I understand the push. In a city as hell-bent on biking as Boston, after all, there’s no doubt people will take advantage of the service. It’s also in line with Hubway’s goal to be a viable replacement to public transportation, whether the alternative is a train, cab or bus. “Part of being real transportation is being reliable and being there when people need it,” said Robertson.
I understand this. As a bike supporter myself, I’ve pedaled through winters in Maine, Boston and Chicago. It’s a great alternative to the inconvenience and high costs often associated with traditional options–if you know what you’re doing. I’m no expert, but I’ve crashed bikes in Maine, Boston and Chicago winters, too, so I understand the risk.
So, I ask, what about safety? Are casual Boston bikers equipped with the street-smarts and know-how to navigate slick city streets and disc-brake-deep slush puddles?
Robertson thinks they are, noting that Hubway bikes–with their fatter tires, low center of gravity and standard disc brakes–are actually already equipped to handle reasonable winter conditions. What’s more, she adds, “there’s been a really exemplary safety record” among Hubway riders so far–just one accident resulting in significant injury has been reported since the service’s inception.
Josh Zisson, an attorney who runs the blog Bike Safe Boston, has a more meta perspective:
I think extending Hubway service through the winter would be fantastic for the city. As far as safety goes, there is definitely an issue. Winter riding requires a bit more care than riding on dry pavement does. However, I think that the benefits far outweigh any potential drawbacks. More bikers on the road makes riding a bike safer for everyone, as it forces drivers to get used to sharing the road with cyclists.
More bikers on the road, in my opinion, is good for any city. It gets people outside and active, it forces drivers to be more cautious, it can be faster than the MBTA anyway, and it helps alleviate some of the typical crowding seen during many a train commute. But walking in a winter wonderland and biking in a winder wonderland are two extremely different things. And it’s here where Robertson loses me as she notes that once the snowplows have been able to clear the path, a post-snowstorm street could be safer for a biker than a non-paved sidewalk is for a walker.
I’m not buying this. Snowplows can’t get everything. Ice can form anywhere if it’s cold enough. Brakes can be hard to grasp through those North Face arctic-grade mittens. And we all know that for no apparent reason everyone drives like it’s their first time behind the wheel as soon as the white stuff starts falling.
Hubway’s best quality is that it makes biking accessible not to the diehard, spandex-rocking power broker or the horn-rimmed fixie aficionado, but to the casual user who doesn’t own a bike but just has somewhere to go.
It’s this same truth that could be Hubway’s conceivable cold-weather undoing.