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Women Bike Wednesday: Alison Cohen, Bike Share Pioneer

Women Bike Wednesday is back! With so much focus on our “Where the Ride Takes Us” series — which included plenty of posts from and about amazing women, like Mari Ruddy, Briana Orr, Mary Brown, Kristin Gavin and the Ovarian Psycos— our weekly posts profiling female leaders and women-focused campaigns was on hiatus during a very-busy National Bike Month.

With the high-profile, public launch of Citi Bike in New York City this week, we figured it’s an opportune time to showcase one of the earliest and most notable leaders in implementing and spreading bike sharing systems in the U.S.: Alison Cohen.

Now Director of Bike Share Services for Toole Design Group, Cohen was pivotal in the development of NYC’s Citi Bike, Boston’s Hubway and DC’s Capital BikeShare, in her previous role at Alta Bicycle Share.

alison cohen

What’s your biking background? How did you get interested in cycling?

I’ve been biking for transportation since as long as I can remember. I remember the first day of college tennis practice at University of Virginia, showing up on a bicycle and almost crashing at the courts, as they were nestled behind the stadium and had a gravel area near our equipment shed. I also remember coming to my final home match against Duke on a bicycle. I biked all over Boston when a grad student at MIT.

Before you were the president of Alta Bicycle Share, were you an advocate, racer, commuter?

I became a huge multi-modal commuter when I lived in Cambridge and worked 13 miles away in Dedham. I would ride my bike to South Station, put my bike on the train, and ride the last mile from the train station to work. I would then ride 13 miles home. Later, when my wife was doing her MBA at Babson, we would drive together to Wellesley, I’d ride from Wellesley to Dedham (8 miles) and then ride the 13 miles home. All year round. I now can’t imagine being that hard-core! I outfitted the shower room in the office with a closet, kept my clothes at work and encouraged all my colleagues to try biking to work. At this point, I realized that I was never going to drive to a job, and that I really loved and believed in multi-modal transportation and sustainable business practices.

You have an incredibly diverse and impressive professional background — tennis, Goldman Sachs, Free the Children. What’s been your guiding star in all of this? How do all of these fit together? Taking on personal challenges? Opportunties to use your vision for social innovation?

My over-arching philosophy early on was to leave as many opportunities open with each career or education move. I figured as a Physics major, I could always go to grad school in English or Engineering, but if I left science, it would be hard to go back. This gave me unbelievable opportunity to figure out what was right for me. After some early experience in investment banking, which was an amazing education, I realized that I wanted and needed to do something that I cared about, but still be able to earn a reasonable living. Since then, I’ve also understood that my passions are in giving people the opportunity to live a healthy and environmentally responsible life. I try to live that way myself as well. I believe that working in a for-profit mission-driven company helps me fulfill both sides of these goals. Setting up bike share systems is one way to make it easy for people to include fitness and environmentally responsible and convenient transportation into everyday life.

I know you mentioned in our conversation (when I was working on a bike share feature for Momentum magazine in 2011) that you started some small bike share systems in Cambridge — what was your first introduction to this concept? Why did this particular concept inspire you?

In late 2007, I read about the Velib system launching in Paris, and as mentioned above, had become a huge multi-modal commuter by this time. I was around Babson College, as my wife was getting her MBA there, and this school is a hotbed of entrepreneurship. I thought that Cambridge would be a great place for a bike share startup, considering it was on the forefront in terms of bike infrastructure, and the Kendall Square are had a ton of technology startups. I was able to leverage the amazing MIT entrepreneurship network to get my small business started with the Cambridge Innovation Center, who hosted my first employer-based system. It turned out that the City of Boston led the charge for bike sharing in Boston from the City side, and I admire them for taking the first big step in the US in 2009.

You mentioned going to Paris and seeing Velib — was that a turning point for you making this your next professional endeavor?

Riding Velib was a wonderful and amazing educational experience and solidified my desire to try to have a bike-focused bike share operations company. However, I spent the next several years running my own little company on the side while I had a full=time job.

You previously worked for / led Alta Bicycle Share: Was it exciting and/or intimidating to immediately have a system in the nation’s capital? Talk about a high-profile proving ground!

Photo by Michael Lewis, Fast Company

Photo by Michael Lewis, Fast Company

From the agency side, the team that I worked with from DDOT and Arlington was so professional and incredible, the real thought that I had was “don’t mess up”. During that first launch, there was a lot of learning between Alta, PBSC and the clients, and we ended up working all together to make sure that everything was covered. We at Alta ended up being in the middle to fill in all the gaps in this first-ever bike share contract. It was a very tiring and very exciting 4 months from when we completed our contract in May 2010 to system launch in September 2010. There was such a wave of dedication from all of the staff of the agencies, all the staff that we hired, and from PBSC to ensure a successful launch.

What’s been the most exciting thing about this job thus far? And what’s been the biggest challenge?

Launching bike share systems is pretty addictive. In many jobs it can take years to see a project go from concept to launch. In bike share, I have had the absolute luxury of coming in after a multi-year city and public process to get to funding and launch. After the city staff have done so much important work to get the community ready for bike share, we get to come in a propose, contract and launch a project within a year. We basically got the “icing on the cake”, and get to see the fruits of hard labor so quickly. Experiencing the positive vibe around bike share and the impacts it has on cities is pretty amazing to watch. In addition, the city staff and employees who work on bike share are, to a person, incredibly hard-working and dedicated. It is inspiring.

From the Women Bike perspective, both anecdotally and data-wise, it seems that bike share systems get more women riding. Do you think that’s the case? Do you see bike share as a key step in closing the gender gap?

I believe this has been most pronounced in Capital Bikeshare, where bike share riders are 50% male and 50% female. I do believe that in other cities, the gender gap will continue to close because of bike share. Bike Share bikes are typically upright and safer, which gives more women the courage to get on a bike. I believe safety is the #1 issue in getting women on bikes, and the safety record of these bikes is very strong.

You say in this video that you like to be on the “steep part of the learning curve.” I would imagine your involvement in the development of the NYC program (with all the additional challenges, like Hurricane Sandy) has certainly proved to be a climb…?

We are still on the front edge of the bike share industry, as it is only 3 years old in the US. There are so many improvements to be made. Currently, I’m very interested in improving the pricing structure so that it is better understood by the user, improving contract structures so that the incentives of the operator are aligned with the city, important technological innovations such as integrating bike sharing with transit, and increasing racial and socio-economic equity in bike sharing systems.

You’re already a “social innovation rockstar” — what’s the next step, for you, or bike share now that you’re at Toole Design?

At Toole, I’m very interested in working with the deep professional experience in bike and pedestrian planning to work on several of the items discussed above. In addition, Im’ very excited to guide cities, both in the US and globally, as they consider the structure of the bike sharing programs they are planning. I’m hoping to help guide them in a manner which takes the best of what we have learned so far, and warns them of challenges that other programs have faced. Toole is a growing entrepreneurial company, and I’m excited to be moving forward together with them.

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