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With Cincy's bike share move, eyes turn to Cleveland, Ohio's last major metro without it

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/10/14 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Biking

Now that bike share has moved into mid-size markets like Buffalo and, last week, Cincinnati, this hybrid public transit and symbol of new urbanism is attracting praise and deep scrutiny. Scrutiny is good, but will it halt the progress of bike share even into unproven markets?

Budget hawks sniffing around bike share are asking, “is it profitable?” That may have some bearing on weak market cities as they decide how to act on feasibility studies, but it misses the point completely. And so it shouldn’t stop Cleveland from pursuing it. Experts agree. Here’s why:

Columbus goes for it <br />CoGo bike share service launched in Columbus in 2013. Image: from CoGo.Too social<br />Social Bikes, a three-year-old start up, is providing competition in the bike share market. Image: Social Bikes.

In Cleveland’s case, the quest for bike share started with a different set of questions. Can it get people out of their cars? Can it provide a healthier and more convenient way to get around the city center? Can it offset carbon emissions? Can it spur development?

The Cleveland Task Force charged with exploring bike share included Positively Cleveland, RTA, Bike Cleveland, city of Cleveland and others in the non profit and civic sector (disclosure: GCBL was on the task force). We put more emphasis on health and environmental outcomes than profitability. We don’t think this is excuse making. There are more profound metrics for bike share.

It seems as though cities are buying into bike share on the promise of attracting talent. It’s a good bet that we’ll continue to see more bike share systems come online for the environmental, health, and talent attraction reasons—so long as the local funders who see opportunity in associating their brand with a ‘bricks and mortar’ incarnation of these values exists and can be tapped for financial support.

This is the great value proposition of bike share. Buried deep in this post from Urban Cincy about the Queen City’s 3-year development pipeline for bike share was the line about branding power. Citibank is gaining tangible brand value for its sponsorship of New York City’s ‘blue bike‘ system. For Citibank, the cost-benefit of “owning” a system of bike share—which is about as popular with the Millennials as skinny jeans and craft beers—is a no-brainer. Companies are keenly aware of the associative power of something this green and healthy.

It should give Cleveland leaders evaluating bike share more guidance on who to sell it to. Part of Cleveland’s effort to date has been outreach to universities, and major employers in the public and private sector.

As it develops a business plan, Cleveland will be informed by the data coming from Cincy whose new Cincy Bike Share, Inc. announced that the Madison, Wisconsing firm B-Cycle made an initial offer: $1.5 million and $400,000 in operating costs to operate a first phase of 200 bikes and 20 stations. Cleveland’s bike share feasibility study called for a much larger phase one than Cincy’s—700 bikes and 70 stations connecting downtown and University Circle. But, Toole Design Group’s “hand grenade” estimate for Cleveland ($4.3 million and $200,000 O&M) is in the same striking range as Cincy.

What Cleveland needs now is someone entrepreneurial who wants to start up a business that manages bike share. They’ll be able to galvanize support, and, yes, scrutinize the market for the best deal. B-Cycle might want to bid on Cleveland’s bike share, but the good news is, they have competition (despite the highly publicized bankruptcy of Montreal’s bike share company, bixi). Fourth generation bike share technologies—like the company, Social Bikes, which put the computer and the lock on the bike and made the stations redundant—are gaining market share (winning Buffalo’s and Pittsburgh’s contract).

It is likely Cleveland will not have to pay the premium that the early adopters did. Cleveland won’t have to act first, but it should act, confidently, because bike share fits within its sustainable mobility plans. With downtown’s residential population growing, the market is infilling for bike share. Tens of thousands living and working downtown will not have the space to own a bike and will want the option of biking to a meeting or home from the bar.

What the city needs now is a couple of visionaries—an entrepreneur and a sponsor who see the upside of owning all that good will—to start moving.

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