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New research shows bike-share programs can change commuting habits

An early model of the L.A. Metro bike share program.
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority
An early model of the L.A. Metro bike share program.

As Los Angeles prepares to join a growing list of cities with a bike-share system, a new study from University of California, Berkeley, shows such programs can change how people travel.

Bike-sharing programs, which allow users to rent a bike at one location for short trips and drop it off at another station, have sprung up around the world. L.A.'s program launches next summer and will eventually offer 4,000 rental bikes around the county.

Researchers surveyed about 10,000 people who had signed up for bike-share memberships in Toronto, Montreal, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. They asked whether using bike-share increased or decreased their use of various modes of transportation.

In all places, the majority of users reported driving cars less, but shifts in transit and walking varied depending on the city.

In dense, centralized areas like downtown Washington, D.C., more people were using the bikes in place of buses and trains for short trips, said research engineer Elliot Martin, who co-authored the study.

"That was because bike-sharing was providing this faster, and also cheaper, direct movement within the city," he said.

However, in less centralized areas of Washington, D.C., and in less concentrated cities like Minneapolis, people used the bikes to reach rail services and increased their trips by train.

Martin said officials in L.A. can use the research to choose the best places to locate the bike rental stations by understanding how people use them in different urban settings.

"The way bike-sharing influences travel, it's a very nuanced story," said Martin.

Metro will pilot its bike-share program in downtown L.A. and possibly expand next to Pasadena and other areas of the county. 

Last week, the Metro Board approved a fare structure for the system starting at $20 for a monthly pass. Users with a monthly pass can get one 30-minute ride per day.

Those without an annual or monthly membership will pay upwards of $3.75 to use the bikes. There will be a cheaper trial period for the first month of the bike-share operation. 

Although according to the research bike-share users in Washington, D.C., said they used the system instead of buses and trains because it was cheaper, that may not always be the case in Los Angeles.

Metro transit fares are among the lowest in the country. A base Metro fare is $1.75, including transfers for two hours, while DASH, the commuter bus system, costs a mere 50 cents.