Bikes will be here, there, but not yet everywhere

By Martine Powers
Globe Correspondent / July 20, 2011

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In Back Bay, there will be nine depots where bicyclists longing for a quick jaunt on a shiny set of wheels can rent a ride. In Jamaica Plain, there will be none.

In Allston, there will be eight bike-sharing stations. In South Boston? Zero.

As the countdown begins to next week’s inauguration of Boston’s bike-sharing initiative - evoking Paris and Washington, where bike sharing is all the rage - one of the most persistent questions from potential customers remains: Will Hubway, as it will be known, set up shop in my neighborhood?

Administrators in the city’s Boston Bikes program are finalizing the locations of about 60 stations, which will dispense 600 bikes. But since the company hired to run the program released a roster of tentative locations yesterday, potential Hubway users online and at public meet-and-greets have clamored to know why Hubway passed over Jamaica Plain, Cambridge, and Somerville, all focal points of the Hub’s cycling culture.

“They’re all in the downtown area, with the tourists and the wealthy people,’’ lamented 21-year-old Genesis Baez, who lives in Jamaica Plain. “There are a lot of families here, and the program should be for them, as well.’’

Nicole Freedman, the city’s director of bicycle programs, explained that the decision to concentrate the first batch of kiosks in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods was based on a simple calculus: Put bikes in the neighborhoods most densely packed with workers, tourists, and shops.

“We really want to keep stations every two- to four-hundred yards,’’ Freedman said. “When you start to spread it out, functionality is not as good.’’

Hubway administrators looked at the success and failure of bike-sharing programs in other cities, and noticed that the program worked only when there were many stations closely arranged. Bike-sharing programs fail, she said, when kiosks are spaced out, with just a few sprinkled around each neighborhood, or when clusters of kiosks are isolated from other clusters.

In those cases, she said, people are deterred from participating because they have to walk too far to reach a station.

But in coming months, she promised, Hubway will find its way into other corners of the city.

“We know we want to get into neighborhoods,’’ Freedman said. “But we want to make sure that we do it right.’’

The list of Hubway stations has not been finalized, and company administrators continue to shuffle sites, responding to public concerns about how the stations will affect car or pedestrian traffic.

At least one-quarter of the initial sites have been changed.

One station location, initially planned for the plaza at the Boston Center for the Arts on Tremont Street, was scrapped when the arts center, anchored by a building called the Cyclorama, and two adjacent restaurants raised concerns. They warned Hubway that with a clutch of pedestrians and valet drivers in the same spot, along with an upcoming public art installation, the plaza could turn chaotic on weekend nights.

“We felt that adding distraction and confusion in the middle of all that action might not be the best thing for public safety,’’ said Gordon Hamersley, co-owner of Hamersley’s Bistro, a restaurant next to the potential bike-sharing station.

Instead, the kiosks will be in adjacent parking spots. One of the advantages of the Hubway kiosks, Freedman said, is that they are not anchored to the ground, so they can be moved easily if it is determined that a kiosk is causing a traffic disturbance or not drawing enough customers.

The kiosks, which premier on Tuesday, will have docking stations for bikes, and the number of docking stations depends on that location’s expected popularity. South Station, the biggest, will have 47 docking stations; most others will have 17 or 19. That does not mean the South Station kiosk will have 47 bikes: Kiosks will start out with roughly twice as many docking stations as bikes, because there must be space for bikes moving from station to station.

Annual memberships will be $85 (although there’s a special introductory rate of $60 right now). Rentals of up to half an hour are covered by the membership fee; rides longer than that ring up an escalating surcharge.

Hubway users will be able to download a smartphone app to find the closest kiosk and to alert them when docking stations are full or empty. If a station is full, users have an extra 15 minutes to return the bike to a different station. Hubway staff will be on call to reshuffle bikes to counteract traffic patterns, such as daily rush hour or a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

At the Copley Square farmers’ market yesterday, the Hubway street team showed off four of the silver bikes.

The bikes were designed for the bike-sharing program, said Brogan Graham, a member of the program’s street team.

They are sturdy and heavy, with thick, puncture-resistant tires. The seats are low, and the handle-bars high, providing a more comfortable ride for users who are not regular bicycle riders.

The bikes feature lights on the front and back that turn on automatically when the pedals are in motion. And there’s no bar stretching from seat to handlebar, so users can mount easily, even in a dress or a suit.

“They’re cut for everyone,’’ Graham said.

One pedestrian who approached the bikes compared them to Zipcars. Another said it reminded her of bike-sharing in Montreal. An older man wanted to know when the rentals would be available in Cambridge.

Cathy Waters, an Emerson College professor, signed up for Hubway yesterday. Waters owns a bike, but she commutes from Bedford and wants to use Hubway to pedal to restaurants or run errands during lunch.

“I’d really like to see this program work,’’ Waters said. “I hope they give it the time it needs.’’

Linda Schwab, 62, who lives in the South End, finds the idea of the bike-sharing program intriguing and worrisome.

Schwab is an avid cyclist and happy that City Hall is backing an ecofriendly endeavor. But the idea of hundreds of novice bikers hitting the streets all at once troubles her.

“It’s nice to encourage the idea that Boston is a bike-friendly city, but I don’t think it is,’’ she said. “I just hope people don’t get killed.’’

Globe correspondent Derek Anderson contributed to this report. Martine Powers can be reached at

Clarification: This Page One story about Boston’s new bike-sharing program incompletely explained whether the program will make bikes available in South Boston. While most of that neighborhood will not have the bike-share program’s kiosks, two locations in the Seaport District and one on the Gillette campus adjacent to downtown will have bikes.