AP

It's a cost-effective, high-return option, says Chicago's transportation commissioner.

A lot of cities want to expand their transit service but don't have the money to dig an entire subway system (or even to extend one that already exists). Usually these places will instead consider enhancing bus service (often through bus-rapid transit) or, perhaps, building an above-ground rail system (lately streetcars have been the rage). During a discussion about the future of urban mobility at CityLab, Chicago transportation chief Gabe Klein suggested another option: bike-share.

"There's this argument about streetcar versus BRT, and what should primary cities, secondary cities sort of look at," said Klein. "I think, first of all, you shouldn't count out bike-share as mass transit."

The numbers Klein presented certainly support his point. Divvy, Chicago's bike-share system, just hit 10,000 trips a day, said Klein, who hopes that figure will be several times greater by next summer. (New York transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who was sitting beside Klein during the discussion, informed him that the Citi Bike system just hit 42,000 daily trips.)

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"So it can have a real effect," said Klein. "The fact is not everyone can afford to put a new rail line in."

The price of bike-share is also right. Klein, who used to run the transportation department in Washington, D.C., said the entire Capital Bikeshare system was put in place for $6 million. Citi Bike is privately funded. Streetcar systems, by comparison, cost tens of millions of dollars in public money to build. For all that spending, their ridership figures can end up in the same ballpark as those of bike-share; Portland's very successful streetcar system, for instance, carries 11,000 people a day.

In other words, said Klein, cities should be having the BRT versus bike-share debate as often as the BRT versus streetcar debate.

"Really the bike-share system has almost taken the place of streetcars, which used to very slowly move people around the city above ground," said Klein. "It's a much cheaper way to do it. … So there are high-return, lower-cost investments you can make in some of these smaller cities and towns."

Top image: Cyclists ride on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

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