Palo Alto's residents and workers will soon be able to check out bicycles as easily as they borrow library books, thanks to a new bike-loan program that is scheduled to roll out along the Peninsula in the next two years.
Though the particulars of the program are still being hashed out, the basic premise is simple. Participants would use membership cards to check out bicycles at various spots throughout the city, including the main hub near the Caltrain station on University Avenue. They would then either return these bikes at the Caltrain hub or at one of smaller satellite stations throughout the city, said Rafael Rius, Palo Alto's traffic engineer.
The bike-loan program will be funded by a grant that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) awarded last month to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Rius said. The grant will allow participating cities to purchase 1,000 bicycles, about 400 of which are expected to would go to Santa Clara County. San Francisco and San Mateo County are also taking part in the program.
Though exact allocation of bicycles has yet to be determined, Rius said he expects Palo Alto and Mountain View to each get about 100 bikes, while San Jose would get about 200.
Palo Alto has been planning a local bike-loan program since 2008, with former Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto leading the charge. In December 2008, the council considered and ultimately decided not to pursue a local bike-loan program featuring 20 bicycles, which would have cost the city $65,000. At that time, the council also directed staff to pursue regional opportunities for a bike-loan program with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).
Kishimoto, who served on the boards of directors of both the VTA and the air-quality district, was one of the leading proponents of the grant application for the regional bike-loan program -- an application that the MTC approved last month. The agency awarded the project a $7.9 million grant, with about $3 million going to the Santa Clara County portion.
The project, she said, is consistent with the goals of both Palo Alto and the VTA to increase the percentage of commuters who use bikes to get around the city.
"No single program is a panacea, but this is an important step," Kishimoto said. "It alone won't do a huge amount, but it might be part of the culture shift that we're working toward."
Unlike the local program that Palo Alto had previously considered, the new one specifically targets Caltrain stations at the participating cities. Kishimoto said it aims to provide train riders with a unified message -- that bikes are a viable option for getting around town. It also aims to solve the problem of the "last mile" by giving commuters a way to get to their ultimate destination once they step off Caltrain, she said.
Kishimoto said she used a similar program when she visited Kyoto, Japan, and found the bike-loan system cheaper and easier than taking a bus or calling a cab.
The program will make its debut at a time when Palo Alto is planning to unveil a host of other improvements to its bicycle infrastructure. City officials are working with local bicyclists and consultants on an ambitious new Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, which they hope will transform Palo Alto into one of the nation's top bicycle cities. Improvements are expected to include colored bicycle lanes, reductions in car lanes at some city streets and new signs directing bicyclists to popular destinations.
Cedric de La Beaujardiere, who chairs the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee, welcomed the new bike-loan program and noted that Paris has a similar program that has been highly successful. Palo Alto is particularly well equipped for such a program because already has a multitude of great bicycle routes, including Bryant Street, Park Boulevard and a bike path between Churchill Avenue and the train tracks, de La Beaujardiere said.
The planned improvements, including new signage, will make it even easier for local residents and out-of-town commuters to get around Palo Alto streets on bicycles, he said.
"We have a lot of cyclists already, but we'd definitely like to increase the load share, in terms of how many people bike," de La Beaujardiere said. "We'd like to have more people biking instead of driving."