Nate Berg

The spread-out city will implement a privately-funded, 4,000-bike system later this year.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has just announced that the city will open its own bicycle sharing system. The 4,000-bike, 400-station system will be rolled out over two years, likely beginning in late 2012.

"It's an opportunity to use bikes to a greater degree than we have in the past, and just to give people an alternative to the single person automobile, says Villaraigosa. He's hoping the new system, along with the expansion of bike lanes and the public transit system will change the way the city moves. "This is a city that’s realized that it's got to move on."

Unlike systems in many other cities, L.A.'s bike sharing system will be implemented, operated and funded by a private company. It'll be the largest privately funded bike sharing system in the country, according to Navin Narang, founder of Bike Nation, the L.A.-based company that will be running the system. Bike Nation is a relatively new player in the field, with just one other bike sharing system in the works – a 200-bike system in Anaheim that's expected to open in June.

For the city, having a private entity take the lead is a blessing, and a sign of hard budgetary times; the city has been thinking about starting a bike share program for years, but hasn't had the money. The $16 million project will be funded completely by Bike Nation, which is committing to at least 10 years of operation.

"Our objective is to continue to renew this and hopefully have a bike sharing system in perpetuity in Los Angeles," says Narang.

For a city of nearly 4 million people and 468 square miles, 4,000 bikes might seem a grossly undersized supply. But because of the city's size and geographic spread, Bike Nation chose to keep its initial roll-out limited, focusing on four neighborhoods: downtown, Hollywood, Venice Beach and Westwood.

"For those particular communities, 4,000 will be adequate," says Narang. "Definitely there would be quite a bit more beyond that as we get more areas coming on line."

When built out, L.A.'s system will be one of the biggest in North America. Montreal currently has the largest fleet, with 5,120 bikes and 411 stations. New York City will be launching a bike sharing system this summer, with 10,000 bikes and 600 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. And Chicago recently approved a plan to implement a 3,000-bike, 300-station system this fall. Paris is home to the world's largest system, with more than 20,000 bikes. London has about 9,200.

Narang expects L.A.'s system will be able to expand, but is cautious about trying to predict when, where or by how much. But he's pretty sure it won't take nearly 10 years to figure out that the program's working well enough to expand.

"We suspect that it's going to grow much faster," Narang says.

The system will create between 85 and 100 jobs in the city, according to Narang. Once the system is operating, staff will be on hand at all times to control overcrowding of bikes, which can be monitored through GPS tracking devices – a feature Narang hopes will discourage theft. He's also hoping that airless tires and a chain-free design will cut down on maintenance costs.

The deal is significant for Villaraigosa, who will be termed out of office next year. Transportation has become one of his main priorities in recent years, and improvements to the city's system are widely seen as one of his potential long-term legacies. Lisa Sarno, executive director in the mayor's office says that it's about more than political reputation. She says more people in the city seem to be craving alternatives to the car, and that Bike Nation's system is a way to help meet that desire.

"This is a perfect example of a private entity recognizing that and investing in the city and its future," Sarno says.

Photo credit: Nate Berg

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