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"New York put bike shares on the map," says MiaBirk, VP of Alta Bicycle Share, the private Portland, Oregon–based company that designed and operates NYC's system, along with ones in Boston, Washington, D.C., and even Melbourne, Australia. "That kind of attention--we were on Jon Stewart and David Letterman in the same week--helped vault bike sharing into mainstream consciousness."

Alta's systems are helping cities of all sizes ease traffic and improve commuting options: Last year, Alta started a bike share in Columbus, Ohio, which followed launches in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Chicago. Plans for 2014 include new programs in Portland, Seattle, Baltimore, and Vancouver, British Columbia.

In a business rife with potholes both literal and metaphorical--stations without bikes, helmetless novices hitting the road, a major supplier's bankruptcy filing in January--the company has mastered a complex operation. For instance, it uses vans to move bikes between stations to ensure availability throughout the city. In New York, the country's largest system, that amounts to nearly 6,000 bikes spread across more than 300 stations. And the distribution challenge is about to escalate: This year Alta plans to expand its two largest systems, in New York and Chicago.