Hubway looks like a hit

August 19, 2011
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Full station list still unclear

Hubway, the city’s innovative public bicycle-rental system, launched with five local stations last month and looks like a hit. More than half of the available bikes were in use at several stations the Gazette checked in recent days, including one in Brigham Circle.

But the citywide system opened with 15 fewer stations than originally announced—possibly including two in the Longwood Medical Area (LMA)—due to apparent permitting slow-downs or safety concerns.

While Mission Hill residents had no say in Hubway locations, Beacon Hill residents did, raising safety issues with three stations there that are now delayed, the Gazette has learned. The LMA umbrella organization MASCO had some input on local station locations.

Oregon-based Alta Bicycle Share, which operates the so-called bike share system, referred questions to the Mayor’s Office. The Mayor’s Office did not provide any information about Hubway’s ridership or future station locations before the Gazette’s deadline.

“This is a great day for Boston,” said Mayor Thomas Menino in a press statement on July 28, the day of Hubway’s launch. “We have had the goal of going from worst to first [in bicycle-friendliness], and with Hubway, we’re nearly there.”

Hubway involves sturdy, silver-and-black bikes rented via an automated credit-card machine. The stations are essentially large, solar-powered bike racks with a map and advertising poster. Users can rent a bike and return it at any other station around the city. The service will be shut down in the winter.

Local neighborhood stations include: Brigham Circle, in place of former parking spots in front of Penguin Pizza, and Tremont Street at Columbus Avenue across from the Roxbury Crossing T Station.

LMA locations include: Avenue Louis Pasteur and Longwood Avenue; Avenue Louis Pasteur and Blackfan Circle; and Longwood and Binney Street.

Hubway is a membership service intended for relatively well-off riders who have Internet access and a credit card and can afford a $101 deposit plus fees. An annual membership is $85 (currently discounted to $60), and a 24-pass is $5. A thirty-minute ride is free, but for additional time, fees go up sharply. Maps and registration are available at thehubway.com.

For low-income residents, Menino’s wide-ranging bicycle programs includes Roll It Forward, which donates refurbished bicycles to those who might not be able to afford a bike or a Hubway membership.

Despite being planned since 2008 and requiring government permission to use streets and sidewalks, there was virtually no public review of Hubway station locations. Alta President Alison Cohen told the Gazette earlier this year that there would be a public input process of some sort, but that never happened. The Hubway website allowed users to suggest station locations, but that feature was little-publicized, and there was no chance to review or even know Alta’s list of proposed locations.

MASCO was able to propose station locations in private meetings with Alta, as the Gazette previously reported. Those locations tied into LMA institutional sponsorship of the stations. Some of the proposed locations are being used by Hubway, while others are not.

It was a different story in Beacon Hill, where the Beacon Hill Civic Association (BHCA) requested and got input into station locations, according to BHCA President Steve Young. An Alta official and Nicole Freedman, head of the city’s bicycle program, met with BHCA’s traffic and parking committee earlier this year, he said.

Young said he told Freedman, “Best early and not late [on public input], because who knows better where the danger spots are, the areas where [the stations] might be most used are, than the residents?”

All three stations Alta proposed for Beacon Hill were in tricky spots, including one on the street in the neighborhood’s worst intersection, Young said. “We thought the locations they were proposing were fraught with significant risks,” he said.

Alta and the City apparently agreed, delaying those stations. Young said Alta intends to open them in BHCA-suggested locations that require government approvals that are still pending.

Young said that Alta and the City seemed to be skimping on public input under the pressure of opening Hubway on schedule. But, he added, public support is crucial for the system’s success.

“You have to include the neighborhoods so they’re part of it instead of seeking to impose it on the community,” he said.

It appears that Alta still intends to open the remaining 15 stations for an initial total of 61, then expand the program around the city and the region in coming years.

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