Story by Kevin Whitton
Photo by Whitby Bierwolf
Jitensha, bicicletta, tweewieler. Bicycles are serious transportation in many parts of the world, though not so much in the United States. Even in Hawai‘i, where we don’t have very far to go, we’ve followed the Mainland’s lead. Nguyen Le, founder of Hawaii B-cycle, wants the Islands to kick the four-wheel habit.
Bicycles built for all: Nguyen Le wants to get people out of their cars and on a bike, so the entrepreneur-turned-cyclist has brought bike-sharing to the Islands. Bikes can be rented at and returned to kiosks like this one in Kailua, Hawai'i's first.
After working in high finance in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Paris, Le changed gears. He cashed out, bought a sailboat and embarked on a round-the-world voyage. In 2001 he raced the infamous Transpac, sailing from Los Angeles to Honolulu in a mere ten days. By 2003 he was a full-time Hawai‘i resident, pedaling around O‘ahu with a passion born of his college days as a competitive cyclist.
“I started riding again when my parents sent my bike over,” recalls Le. “From then I just realized what a great place Hawai‘i is to ride but how unsafe it is on the road.” Le became an activist for the cycling community, participating in the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Bicycling. On a trip to Paris in 2008, the Velib bike sharing system caught his eye. It was elegant, economical: a high-tech, theft-proof and maintenance-free automated bike sharing system. Now, working with manufacturer B-cycle and with funding from the Hawai‘i Health Initiative, Le is making his utopian vision for the Islands a reality.
The flat terrain, small area and high population density of Kailua on O‘ahu’s Windward side was the perfect testing ground. A comfortable cruiser is released from one of Kailua’s two automated, solarpowered and 3G/WiFi-enabled kiosks with the swipe of a credit card. Riders pay $5 for an unlimited number of uses of the bikes each day. But the idea is to take short rides for transportation, not long, leisurely tours. If you return the bike to any kiosk within a half-hour, it costs nothing more. Every additional half-hour costs $2.50. Forget trying to ride off into the sunset: The bikes have tracking devices. While users have so far been primarily visitors, Kailua residents are warming to a system that’s already successful in Paris, Denver and Washington, DC.
“I hope to make Hawaii B-cycle a ubiquitous service to make it easier and more fun to get around Hawai‘i,” says Le, envisioning Island communities where residents bike for short trips around town instead of driving. He’s already working on expanding to Hale‘iwa and Ko Olina.