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Coming-of-age moment for bike share: Does it fly in the Midwest?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/25/13 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

The nearly overheated way in which bike share—self-serve, two-wheel public transport—has rolled out in American cities makes even its most ardent supporters a little wary.

Bike share in Miami<br />Don't let the suit fool you, the privately owned and operated Deco Bikes in Miami is geared to the South Beach crowd.Docking station<br />Nice Ride, bike share system in Minneapolis, Minnesota.Bike share here?<br />The city of Cleveland hosted a public meeting in April 2013 to gauge interest in bike share.

At a public meeting for the Cleveland Bike Share feasibility study that his firm was hired to lead, Tony Hull, senior planner at Toole Design Group, says his job lately has been tempering the excitement for bike share in cities like Philadelphia which are ready to take the leap.

The City of Brotherly Love made headlines when it announced a $4 million plan to install hundreds of bike share stations and potentially thousands of bikes, one of the largest initial capital outlays for a service that has made in-roads to 40 U.S. and Canadian cities in only four years. Currently, only one—D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare, which was launched by the District in 2008, enjoys the status of operating without a loss, Hull says. D.C. was the first in the U.S., and its wild success is causing palpitations for planners like Hull.

Not-for-profit organizations and governments own most of the bike share systems in the U.S., including Nice Ride which Hull helped launch in his hometown of Minneapolis. Nice Ride was funded with $2 million from a federal program that granted $25 million each to four cities for “non-motorized” transportation.

“Why a city wants to have bike share says a lot about how it will launch,” Hull says.

Where non-profits and cities own the system, bike share has been billed as good for the environment, for providing a public service, and even improving a city’s ability to attract young talent. It makes it easier—even with an estimated $10-$20 million price tag for capital and operating costs—for cities to position bike share as a loss leader.

“Philadelphia’s mayor sees bike share as a legacy project,” says Hull, whose firm delivered the feasibility study and business plan. “It’s moving really fast.”

Maybe too fast? Hull is in the uncomfortable position of managing expectations for what many cities see as manna because bike share operates better in dense, urban places.

Toole was hired in January, 2013 by Cleveland’s Office of Sustainability to conduct a feasibility study—and business plan, if the study recommends it. Toole won the job precisely because it doesn’t operate bike share systems. The firm evaluates markets to see if there’s a good case for them.

“What I don’t want to see is ten years down the road, people saying, ‘remember bike share?’”

Hull is interested in what Cleveland might glean from watching Columbus, which announced this month that it will invest $2 million in a bike share system of 300 bikes and 30 stations.

“Cleveland can no longer claim the mantle of being first. At this point, it would be better served to get it right.”

Whether its a ‘go‘ in Cleveland will depend not so much on the number of bike lanes (few) or the shape of the street grid (good) here, but on who wants to own the system, and how its being funded, Hull said after a public meeting at the downtown library last night where forty people braved cold rain to converse over maps and add sticker dots for station locations.

“The most important thing in the business plan is who pays for it?” he explains. “In Minneapolis, the per bike performance is low, but it has raised awareness of the bike culture. It’s part of the community. You have to ask, is it a public asset?”

Minneapolis has 168 stations spread over the largest geographic “footprint” of any city bike share system. For bike share to gather critical mass—particularly in cities like Cleveland with less density, a large footprint and a higher rate of bike ownership among its enthusiasts—Toole’s task will be to strike a balance between cost and density of kiosks. In Philly, they’re talking about as much as 20 stations per square mile. That’s a very aggressive target, Hull says. Also, in an economically depressed city like Cleveland, is there a large enough market here willing pay on a credit-card swipe to release a bike? In D.C., the cluster of stations is high enough for residents to forgo bike ownership; Cleveland might have to rely on tourists and college students.

“I’m working in our D.C. office, and there’s a sweet spot around 4:50 p.m. when you can get a bike at a kiosk near my office,” Hull says, adding that Capital Bikeshare notched 1.75 million rides in 2012. “Mind you, this is a station with 50 bikes, and by five o’clock it’s completely empty.”

But even Capital Bikeshare doesn’t operate in the black because of rider revenues. The big money is in casual (non-member) riders who tend to ride longer and ring up a big bill. The D.C. system, like most, charges an annual fee—members get the first half-hour of every ride free. The vast majority of Capital bikeshare members keep their rides under 30 minutes to avoid charges, Hull says, which significantly trims its profit margin.

“But D.C. gets something in return in the equity of having another public transportation option.”

In Cleveland, Toole is still searching for the “why” and “who” of bike share. Hull seems relieved that the process is unfolding with a city and Bike Share Task force that is casting more of a cautious eye. That’s not to say he isn’t hopeful that Cleveland can forge a partnership out of the public or private sector to pay for it. He thinks Cleveland could benefit from casting bike share as providing another public transit service, particularly if it can figure out how to enable lower-income residents who receive public assistance to use an EBT “food stamp” card at the kiosk (and get a subsidized membership rate). RTA is a task force member.

“Like in D.C. they have to put business performance and equity in to the mix.”

The Cleveland Bike Share study is gathering station suggestions and surveying potential customers for a limited time on its website.

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