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Cleveland hires D.C. firm to find a 'go' on bike share

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/08/13 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Transportation choices

A Washington, D.C. firm with strong, but less partisan ties to bike share programs in America will determine if Cleveland is ready to support a self-serve, rent-by-the-hour bike service.

Hot in Cleveland?<br />Bike share is a hot urban commodity in 20 U.S. cities like Miami (pictured), with dozens more being planned.

Photo: DecoBike Miami Come one, come all<br />Bike share boasts self-serve, by the hour (many with free first half hour) transportation. Photo: Denver Bike Sharing.

To crack the case on bike share, and answer such questions as, is it a viable business or a loss leader in supporting more sustainable, urban living, Cleveland hired Toole Design Group, an engineering and planning firm whose tag line reads, "making biking and walking possible for every trip".

Toole doesn't run bike share businesses, but it has another feather in its cap. It recently surveyed and analyzed the 20 existing bike share programs in the U.S. for the Federal Highway Administration. Toole edged out Alta Bike Share, the only other respondent to the city's bike share feasibility RFP. Toole must figure out a business model, location of customers and how existing conditions set up for a Cleveland operation.

Taking a step back, what is bike share, and what explains its sudden rise in popularity (before 2010, none existed in the U.S.)? Can we imagine how it would be most successful in Cleveland?

Bike share is coming of age in America, we wrote here, because it builds on what makes cities successful. Bike share is another small star in the constellation of urban attractions.

As Toole discovered, it works better in city centers because it's generally easier to bike where cars move slower, where some bike infrastructure exists, and where higher density land-uses support it.

Slate had this to say about "the most successful" bike share program (Capital) this week:

“There’s such a buzz around bike sharing. If you were to go to a city and they don’t have recycling, you’d think, ‘Where am I, in the 1970s?’ It’s just one of those amenities that you’ve come to expect, and I think that’s definitely becoming true for bike sharing in the U.S.”

Cleveland will pay $39,000 and RTA another $6,000 for Toole and local partners, BrownFlynn and TransSystems, to analyze current conditions of the city's transportation system, interview potential customers and sponsors, and combine it with insight from its past work to determine if bike share is a 'go' in Cleveland. The contract also includes $17,000 from the city for Toole to provide an implementation plan, which means a business plan that estimates market size and revenue potential and a "realistic" schedule for roll out.

The next step for the city and interested parties (that's you and me)—including the city's bike share task force (disclosure: GCBL is a member)—is to nail down the priority goals of a Cleveland Bike Share system. Toole's report for FHWA advises clients to be clear about why they want a bike share system before embarking on the feasibility study.

"Some communities have set goals that are focused on economic sustainability. Others have set goals that relate back to additional transportation goals established through other planning processes (e.g. increase bicycling or reduce carbon emissions)," Toole writes.

Another example of general goal setting, Toole adds, is to use bike share to influence the appeal of biking, make the case for new development and more connectivity between districts, and biking infrastructure such as more bike lanes. In San Antonio and D.C., bike sales increased as a result of their bike share programs.

The most successful bike share programs have stations in high foot traffic areas such as just outside of transit stations. Making a bike available for the 'last mile' between a transit stop and a destination is a big generator of trips for bike share, Toole discovered in its survey.

In markets comparable in size to Cleveland—like Minneapolis, Denver, and Chattanooga—bike share programs launched with a few hundred bikes with a couple of dozen stations clustered in the urban core. Stations should be located 1/2-mile apart, Toole confirms, and fees should be low at first to attract business (many charge a small member fee, but offer the first 30 minutes of the ride free of charge).

In what scenarios can you imagine this working in Cleveland? Should the goal be to connect the business and entertainment districts in the urban core (however that is defined)? What density of stations are needed? Is the market for bike share where most of the biking and transit activity now occurs? Presumably, Toole brings a higher level of data analysis to bear than the unitiated who might say, let's pilot bike share in high traffic areas like the West Side Market parking lot across from the W. 25th Street Rapid Station, at the W. 65th Rapid Station, at Gordon Square Arts District and scattered downtown. They would figure out also how it will scale, for example, to include an operation serving the Uptown/University Circle/Cleveland Clinic/and Heights district.

Sources of capital are an important part of feasibility. In similar markets, funding sources tend to be a mix: Denver B-Cycle had 5-10% of its start up from private donations; 25% of operating costs from sponsorships. Boulder B-Cycle gets 22% from sponsors, 56% from grants, 10% from gifts and 12% from membership and usage fees.

Currently, the biggest source of private funding for bike share is from health-related organizations and private foundations supporting healthy living and sustainable transportation initiatives, Toole found.

Toole will also recommend a business model based on its analysis of Cleveland. Of the three dominant ownership models (private, public or non-profit), the small- to mid-market cities tend to have city owned and operated by a third party, usually a non-profit group. Or, wholly owned and operated by a non-profit with city support (with the city providing public space in exchange for some revenue sharing).

The advantages for the nonprofit and public model are easier access to start-up funds from government grants, such as health or air quality (transportation) programs, and support from private foundations interested in environmental outcomes for capital costs. Potential downsides are delays from "Buy-America", ADA, and environmental impact requirements.

Toole estimates the capital costs range from $35,000-58,000 (including 6-10 bikes) and annual operating costs of $12,000-28,000 per station. Columbus, OH recently announced it will invest $2 million from its general operating fund for an Alta-operated bike share service.

In early 2013, Toole and its team will conduct public meetings to gather community ideas. If they find its a 'go', project leaders hope to have a pilot bike share program launched in May 2013. Stay connected to the Cleveland bike share process, including important dates, on this GCBL page (bookmark it).

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