Amtrak's California Zephyr line sounds like a fantastic way to see the nation. Picture a bucolic ride through diverse landscapes connecting some of America's best cities. Just read this description:
The California Zephyr takes you from the Midwest’s Windy City across the American heartland through Denver, over the front range of the Rockies, through the Continental Divide, Glenwood Canyon, the Utah desert, and the High Sierras to the City by the Bay. On board, you will experience the comfort and relaxation of train travel while witnessing some of the very best American cultural and geographic icons.
Right? Sign me up for one of those Amtrak writers' residencies already.
Now, if I wanted to travel around by bicycle at either of those lovely destinations (or at stops along the way), I'd have some decisions to make. Do I go with Divvy, Chicago's bike-sharing program, which after a year of service now boasts 300 stations? Or with Bay Area Bike Share, a smaller service, but one with stations in San Francisco, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose?
The good news this week for my dream vacation is that I no longer need to sign up for either: Amtrak announced that all its long-distance trains will feature baggage cars, which feature luggage racks that double as bike racks. By the end of the year, all 15 long-distance routes, including the Northeast Corridor, may have these cars. Which means no more messing with bike boxes.
For dedicated cyclists, this is great news. I've loaded a bike on a DC-to-NYC bus before when I planned to ride with friends in New York specifically because it was easiest to throw my bike underneath the bus. That was before Citi Bike was a thing, but even now that bike-share is a reality in New York, I'd much rather put my personal bike on an Amtrak rack. Given the pricing for a day pass—about $60 for three hours, if I fail to swap a bike out every 30 minutes—I'd prefer to lug my own ride.
Which brings up the question: As more and more cities roll out bike-share services, shouldn't these cities be talking about reciprocity?
.@britishpat No reciprocity yet between bikesharing systems, but never say never.— Capital Bikeshare (@bikeshare) September 14, 2011
Some of them already are. Riders who have B-cycle memberships enjoy reciprocity across 15 cities. While Spartanburg in South Carolina and Des Moines in Iowa are smaller markets among cities with bike-share programs, Philadelphia is joining their ranks next year, opening 60 stations with 600 B-cycle bikes in spring 2015. For any Philly resident who travels regularly to Houston, Denver, Nashville, or a dozen smaller B-cycle cities, a membership is a no-brainer—even for a Philadelphian who regularly rides her own bike around town.
Reciprocity between Philadelphia and New York is a harder sell, even though Philadelphia is closer to New York (in every sense) than it is to any other B-cycle city. While bike-share is proving to be an increasingly popular option for point-to-point trips, few systems appear to anticipate that riders might appreciate an easier city-to-city experience, too. Which might come as a surprise: According to the Earth Policy Institute, more than 500 cities in nearly 50 countries support bike-share systems.
Of course, individual systems may stand to gain from the status quo: If I want to take a leisurely ride in New York, maybe I'll just pony up the $60. (Not that it has to cost that much: When I take bike-share in D.C., I'm careful to swap my bike out every half hour to avoid additional fees.) That hasn't proven to be the case everywhere, though. Citi Bike was predicated on a model that relied on pricey one-day or weeklong tourist memberships, but as Capital New York reports, "while tourist ridership fell below expectations, New York-based ridership more than made up for it."
A simple innovation like easy-to-use bike racks on Amtrak makes it all the more likely that I'll take my own bike with me on weekend trips, for example, rather than mess with another city's weird bikesharing system. (There are a lot of them: Alta Bycle Share, Spokies, Bixi, A2B Bikeshare, Bike Nation, SandVault, DecoBike, CycleHop, and Clear Channel among them.)
In fact, there's a model, and it's older than every bike-share program out there: E-ZPass. Some 25 agencies in 14 states make up the E‑ZPass Interagency Group, which includes independent toll systems, like I-Pass in Illinois and NC Quick Pass in North Carolina, and others that have since ditched their brands. Oklahomans can use their Pikepass on toll roads in Kansas, to cite just one example of "interoperability" in the nation's diverse—yet universal—toll road system.
Interoperability or reciprocity would be a boon for bike-riding travelers in U.S. cities, who number more and more every year. Until bike-share systems implement those features: Bike racks on everything, please.