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Five questions about bike share getting funded in Cleveland

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/17/15 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Biking, Transportation

NOACA recently approved a $357,000 grant for building a citywide bike share system in Cleveland. The ultimate goal is to raise $2 million to either expand the existing Zagster pilot project or start over with another operator. Earlier, a Cleveland Bike Share Feasibility study found the critical numbers Cleveland should aim for: 77 to 140 stations. That’s somewhere in the range of 700 to 1,000 bikes for people to ride from Point A and leave at Point B. The geography of phase one is downtown, University Circle, Tremont, Detroit-Shoreway, Old Brooklyn and Midtown.

<br />Red Bike, the bike share service in Cincinnati, is a B-Cycle system. Image: UrbanCincy.

As Cleveland prepares for the possibility of a bike share system—and (hopefully) aspires to make it one of the best among 70 cities in the U.S. that have them—here are five questions to consider before shovels hit the ground.

1.) Is it scalable?

Three companies responded to BikeCleveland’s RFP for a bike share operator: Zagster, B-Cycle and SoBi.

Zagster is known in the area for its pilot with Ohio City bars and the Metroparks who invested in six stations and 60 bikes in 2014. With its business model based around a free, bike shuttle service for colleges and corporate campuses, Zagster has no track record of scaling up to a citywide operation. Zagster should be under the microscope as well for its on-board technology which is not as robust as B-Cycle’s (its GPS capabilities and its reliability have been called into question) and a membership model that can make a critical distinction between bike rental and bike share. 

B-Cycle is one of the industry’s big players. It has the track record to launch and maintain a citywide system, but its capital cost is nearly three times more than Zagster. With the notoriously budget-conscious Cleveland, is that enough to tip the balance? B-Cycle also holds an edge in understanding the wrap around of services like “rebalancing” (i.e. returning bikes to their station) and trouble shooting the system.

SoBi may be a wildcard in the hunt for Cleveland’s business. A hybrid of the lighter bike with on-board computer (not the big, expensive—but more reliable—kiosks of B-Cycle), SoBi seems to have more of a track record in city-scale bike share. According to its web site, SoBi has set up systems in San Francisco, Phoenix and Buffalo among others. But, does it have enough of a full-service operation to distinguish itself from Zagster?

2.) Is it inclusive?

A national conversation has started around, how equitable are bike share systems if they rely exclusively on credit cards and relatively expensive membership fees? Cleveland needs to participate in that conversation, and be aware of studies like the seven cities who received $375,000 this week to explore more inclusionary practices in bike share.

Even before the results of those studies are in, Cleveland can adapt its own equity goals. More than a “nice to have,” being inclusive of low to moderate income earners—maybe through a subsidized membership card that has a magnetic strip—could ensure that the system is used more often (it might also help the non-profit running the Cleveland system secure more philanthropic and foundation support). Which leads us to...

3.) Is it effective?

Cleveland bike share can serve a practical, daily need as public transit. Many bike share systems are geared for tourists—and there is a market for moving tourists from attraction to attraction with a bike. But, will system design reflect a need to move Clevelanders who use public transit daily? Bike share could serve the last mile between the end of a transit ride and a destination. For it to function this way, the area’s many transit stops—which aren’t in dense surrounds—will have to figure out how to include bike share.

4.) Is it “sticky”?

I recently met with an executive director of a special improvement district who I was trying to sell on the concept of bike share. I did a little research, and found this study of Capital Bikeshare in D.C.—often seen as the most successful bike share in the country. What D.C. found is college age people use bike share to offset the need for driving to drinking destinations like Dupont Circle and Georgetown. The SID director asked how Cleveland was going to market bike share to its customers and get merchants interested enough to financially support it? As I searched for an answer, she provided two ideas—paint bikes themed for their district (rock and roll, bratwurst, and so on), and create a customer appreciation program redeemable at the counter. The third idea I’ll include is, make it regional. With the $357,000 awarded to the Cuyahoga County Office of Sustainability, and with the service area of major hubs like University Circle and Detroit-Shoreway, a second phase should include Cleveland Heights and Lakewood.

5.) Is it built to last?

Beyond profitability, what ensures that Cleveland bike share creates lasting value? Cities like Columbus and Cincinnati, which are already expanding their bike share systems after one year in operation, are finding that bike infrastructure—lanes, sharrows—create the conditions that encourage people to try bike share. Cleveland, NOACA and ODOT have work to do in building more of a complete bike network, which goes hand in hand with having the right density of bike share.

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