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Riding a bike may have been the go-to mode of transport to foster your grade-school social life, but imagine hitting two wheels to get to dinner, travel to and from work, and take a joyride through the park — as an adult. Now, New York City dwellers (both young and old) will have the opportunity to do just that, even if they don’t own a bike: The city is set to launch its long-awaited bike-share program to residents and tourists alike.

The main intention of the program is to create a 24-hour, budget-friendly transportation option that will decrease reliance on other clogged forms of public transportation in the packed city — but bike programs such as this one also have the potential to positively impact both individual and environmental health.

Around the world, urban residents have been participating in bike programs for years — from Cheyres, Switzerland, to Atlanta, Georgia — but New York has been relatively late to the game.

First announced in September 2011, New York City’s bike share was originally scheduled to begin last summer, but a series of setbacks have delayed the launch nearly a year. First there were finicky software problems, then some trouble with the law, and then flood damage to equipment in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. But now the bikes (sponsored by Citi Bank) are nearly ready to ride.

Registration opened yesterday, and thousands of New York City bike fans flocked to sign up for 24/7 access to 6,000 bikes (from 330 stations) that will allow users to cruise around the more than 700 miles of bike lanes in the Big Apple. So far, over 4,000 people have purchased annual memberships, though the program isn’t expected to open officially until sometime in May.

How It Works

The rental process is super simple: Unlock a bike from any of the 330 stations in Midtown, Lower Manhattan, and parts of Brooklyn, ride wherever the heck you want to, and then return the bike to any station. Each station has a touch-screen kiosk that guides users through the rental process, plus a map of the surrounding area.

An annual membership (which includes unlimited 45-minute trips) costs just under $100. A 24-hour access pass for unlimited 30-minute trips costs $9.95, and a seven-day pass (also for unlimited 30-minute trips) goes for $25 — pretty measly considering a monthly MetroCard pass runs New Yorkers a cool $112.

The program is going mobile, too. The Citi Bike App (which has not yet been released) will allow users to plan routes by searching station locations and bike availability. Tap a station pin on the app’s map, and it will suggest the quickest route to a destination. Let’s say someone’s jonesing for coffee on the Upper West side, or a pizza joint by the Brooklyn bridge — they simply type in a search term and the app will list bike availability near the desired food, drink (or library, dry-cleaner, you get the idea). If a station is full when it’s time to return the bike, users can request a time credit at the kiosk, which tacks an extra 15 minutes onto the ride time so users are able to dock the bike at a nearby station with availability.

Why It Matters

Aside from being a low-cost public transit option, hitting the pavement on a bike is an easy way to sneak in some physical activity, decrease air pollution, and entertain yourself on the cheap. Whether you live in the Big Apple or not, biking has notable environmental and physical benefits. Though safety may be a concern when biking in a busy city, a study of over 175,000 bikers in Barcelona, Spain found that public bicycle sharing provides greater benefits than risks to healthThe health risks and benefits of cycling in urban environments compared with car use: health impact assessment study. Rojas-Rueda, D., de Nazelle, A., Tainio, M., et al. Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, Barcelona, Spain. British Medical Journal, 2011 Aug 4;343:d4521.. And while it may seem obvious, studies confirm that when there’s access to public bike share programs, there’s a greater likelihood of people turning to bikes to get where they need to goImpact evaluation of a public bicycle share program on cycling: a case example of BIXI in Montreal, Quebec. Fuller, D., Gauvin, L., Kestens, Y., et al. Department of Sociale and Preventative Medicine, universite de Motreal, Monreal, Canada. American Journal of Public Health, 2013 Mar;103(3):e85-92.. That’s a whole lot of biking, considering the enormous rise in bike share initiatives since the first U.S. program launched in 2008.

New York City’s bike share program, in particular, also has the potential to cultivate a sense of community in a city that can often feel lonely despite its massive population. Citi Bike has set out to hold monthly social rides around Manhattan and Brooklyn, and users are encouraged to share their stories of their travels on Facebook and Twitter. The program has a ton of potential to get New York City residents moving, especially since developers plan to expand the program to 10,000 bikes and 600 stations, including the Upper East and Upper West Sides and Long Island City. In short, these programs are proof that bikes aren’t just for the mountains and the suburbs.

Do you participate in a bike share program in your city? Do you think these programs can benefit individuals, the environment, or communities? Let us know in the comment section below or tweet the author @nicmdermott.