MINNEAPOLIS -- Minneapolis is sending its commuters a new message: Hit a bicycle pedal instead of a gas pedal. But authorities are already questioning the program's impact.
"We're never going to be like Europe," said Rob Atkinson, who chaired a commission created by Congress that was charged with making recommendations on alternative approaches to funding transportation infrastructure. "It's never going to happen. But we can do a lot more than we do here."
Bike-sharing programs have been far more popular in Europe, with its shorter distances, higher fuel costs and already established biking cultures, than in America. In 2007, Paris launched a program with more than 10,000 bikes and quickly doubled that. The same year, Barcelona launched with 200 bikes and by 2009 was up to 6,000 bicycles.
Minneapolis is joining Denver in a new wave of cities in car-crazy America trying to cut down on obesity, traffic jams and air pollution with bike-sharing programs. It was debuting Nice Ride Minnesota on Thursday with 700 bicycles and 65 kiosks where riders can swipe a keycard, pick up a bike and go -- making it one of the largest urban bike-sharing programs in the U.S.
But it soon could be eclipsed by others elsewhere. Washington, D.C., plans to expand to Arlington, Virginia, this fall with about nine times as many bicycles as the 120 it started with. Nearly a dozen other U.S. cities, including Boston, New York and Chicago, are exploring or kicking off such programs. Denver launched its on Earth Day with 500 bikes and 50 stations.
"There's a lot of bike riders out there who haven't figured out, 'How do I work it into my day?"' said Bill Dossett, executive director of the nonprofit Nice Ride Minnesota. "Our primary goal is to make it really easy for people to get a bike while they're downtown and use it for short trips."
Previous bike-sharing programs generally relied on bikes being left around town for anyone to use; those bikes would end up lost, stolen or vandalized. But a new generation of bike-sharing uses standardized bikes that can be locked in a kiosk.
Atkinson, who bikes to work, said bike-sharing programs need a city with a good system of bike lanes and paths. Minneapolis, which was recently named the most bike-friendly city in the U.S. by Bicycling magazine, has 128 miles (205 kilometers) of bike ways -- on and off the streets -- and is adding an additional 35 miles (56 kilometers) this year.
Minneapolis' program is funded mainly by $1.75 million from the Federal Highway Administration and $1 million from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. But riders still must pay. A 24-hour pass is $5; a yearly subscription is $60. Chips in each bike track the renter, and lost, stolen or damaged bikes are paid for by the user.
The program's light-green bike kiosks are concentrated downtown, at the University of Minnesota's campus and near dining hot spots. Bikes will be available from April to November.
"As more people are riding downtown, more people will feel comfortable doing it," Dossett said.
Both Minneapolis and Denver saw the possibilities when bike-sharing programs were used at the 2008 Republican and Democratic conventions they hosted, with 1,000 bikes at each location. In eight days that summer, the program logged 7,523 bike rides and 41,724 miles (67,145 kilometers).
Portland, Oregon, is watching the Minnesota and Denver programs before deciding whether to launch its own.
"Bike-sharing is a fairly expensive investment, and there are not any cities with our level of bicycling that have introduced bike-sharing that have seen a measurable increase in the percentage of people biking," said Steve Hoyt-McBeth, project manager in the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.