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It’s Easy Being Green: Spare the Air? Share the Road

SOURCE: AP/Michel Spingler

Men examine bicycles in Paris. The city's bike-sharing program, "Velib," has more than 1,450 stations and 20,000 bikes in use.

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What do Paris, Barcelona, Stockholm, Vienna, and Washington, DC all have in common? It’s not the punchline to a joke—they have all gone green with bike envy and implemented bike-sharing systems in traffic-congested downtown areas.

Paris’s Velib system is the largest of the bunch, with more than 1,450 stations and 20,000 bikes in use. In Velib’s first year of operation, Parisians racked up more than 27.5 million trips by bicycle. Washington, DC’s SmartBikeDC, the first bike-sharing service in the United States, just opened for business this month with 10 stations and 120 bikes. The advertising-subsidized systems are also reasonably priced for users.

Even big companies are promoting bike-sharing as the alternative urban transportation of the future. Humana, Inc., one of the largest health care providers in the United States, has launched a program for its 8,500 Louisville, Kentucky employees. The Freewheelin’ system will also outfit both Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul with 1,000 bikes for free use during the upcoming political conventions.

Sharing transportation isn’t limited to bikes, either. With traffic congestion, commute times, and gas prices increasing, other forms of sharing like carpooling, public transit, and car-sharing are gaining in appeal and popularity.

More Americans have been hopping aboard public transportation since gas prices leapt above $4 a gallon earlier this year. In Washington, DC, the Metrorail light rail system has set several records since April 2008. Twenty of its top 25 highest weekday ridership days have occurred since then. Nationwide, light rail system ridership jumped 10.3 percent in the first three months of 2008, compared with the same period in 2007. Even Los Angeles, car capital of the United States, has seen its subway—yes, subway—ridership vault to all-time highs.

There are even sharing options for those with long commutes from the suburbs. Seventy-five percent of commuters drive alone, but start-ups designed to encourage carpooling are proliferating nonetheless. Online listings like eRideShare.com, Zimride, GoLoco, and even Craigslist let drivers and passengers connect to share everything from commutes to cross-country trips. Slugging, a form of no-nonsense carpool commuting that originated in Washington, DC, has evolved as a way to bypass traffic and put commuters in the HOV lanes. Carpoolers, ridesharers, and sluggers can share the cost of gas and parking, and reduce their emissions.

One step further on the sharing spectrum is ditching the car entirely and signing up for a car-sharing service. Zipcar, the largest car-sharing network in the country, reports that its members reduce their driving by as much as 50 percent, and use other transportation, like walking, biking, public transportation, or taxi more often. Each Zipcar replaces more than 15 privately owned vehicles on the road. Philadelphia’s non-profit PhillyCarShare says that 30,000 Philadelphians have signed up since the company’s beginnings in 2004, resulting in 8,000 fewer vehicles and $33 million in annual savings.

Car-sharing not only removes the headache of parking and reduces traffic congestion; it can also save members thousands of dollars a year. Zipcar says its members save up to $5,000 a year by not paying insurance bills, parking fees, gas fill-ups, and maintenance costs. And it’s not only car-sharing that can result in savings. The American Public Transportation Association estimates that Americans save more than $8,000 annually just by riding public transit instead of driving.

As for bike-sharing? A membership for SmartBikeDC costs $40 for a year. That’s a lot less than a trip to the pump for almost any car on the road.

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