It seems like every year is a banner year for bike share systems in America’s largest cities. New York’s Citi Bike saw an impressive 24% increase in annual trips last year, breaking the 10 million trip mark. Capital Bikeshare, which serves the Washington DC area, continues to expand its service area and membership. However, these relative colossi are not the only players in the game. Small and medium-sized cities across the county are joining in on the bike share fun. We looked at a number of programs and discovered a surprising diversity of size and organization. It goes to show that nearly any community with a willingness to get a little bike grease on their hands can implement a bike share program.
Size and Structure
Communities have shown a great deal of creativity in scaling and structuring bike share programs to meet their local needs. Collingswood, NJ (population: 13,962) first began their program in 2008 with just 20 donated bikes, and has since grown to over 500. For only $25 a year, users can “check out” a bike and keep it for as little as a day and as long as a year. The small community of Norway, ME (population: 4,978) structures their program as a bike loan system, where residents pay an annual fee on a sliding scale to access a small fleet of bikes for local errands. Camden County, NJ operates on a slightly larger scale, with a number of townships and boroughs independently operating bike loan programs under one umbrella organization. These programs have a short list of rules that rely mostly on common sense and courtesy, but do not need complicated systems to function smoothly.
Some slightly larger communities use purpose-built systems with standardized bicycles and docking stations. Battle Creek, MI (population: 52,347) has three docking locations where users can check out bicycles for up to 24 hours. The system uses the “traditional” smart dock structure where bikes must be checked out and returned to docks in the system’s network. Princeton, NJ (population: 30,108) launched their program in 2014 with only 10 bikes and one station. As of March 21, they expanded to nine stations located around the University, accessible to students and residents alike, where bikes can be picked up for 2-hour trips. Princeton’s system also features smart docks where bicycles must be returned, but the bicycles also come equipped with u-locks that allow users to make several stops on their trip before returning to a station. Santa Monica, CA (population: 89,736) has an impressive program for a city of its size with 75 stations closely packed within its 8.4 square miles. Their system, called Breeze, uses “smart bikes” that have onboard technology which communicates back to the central system, independently from the docking stations. This enables users to find the bicycles wherever the previous rider chose to end their trip, even if it’s not a docking station.
Programs at different scales tend to be operated by different entities. At the small end, operation is usually carried out directly by a municipality, a nonprofit partner, or a community organization. The program in Collingswood, for example, is run by the Borough’s Department of Recreation. In Norway, ME, a local environmental group, the Center for Ecology-Based Economy, oversees the program. A program is Salem, MA is operated as a collaboration between the city of Salem, Salem State University, and a coalition of local businesses.
Other programs have chosen to hire one of the many third-party bike share providers. While investment costs are difficult to come by, several names come up repeatedly in the smaller-scale programs. A company called SoBi (Social Bicycles) operates programs in Santa Monica and Ketchum, ID. Bcycle operates in Battle Creek, Broward County, FL, Rapid City, MI, and Fargo, ND. Princeton’s program is operated by a company called Zagster, which is popular amongst universities.
Regardless of any other attribute, funding is always a unique challenge for bike share programs, and different communities have taken different approaches. Small, more informal programs like those in Collingswood and Norway rely mostly on donated time and donated equipment. In the case of Norway, the town received a $1,000 start-up grant from the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund to get the program off the ground. Other places have received money from state agencies or regional planning bodies. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (Amherst-Springfield) received special state technical assistance funding to conduct feasibility studies for a regional bike share program. MPOs are also a good place to seek grant assistance.
Private funding is also an option for some communities. Battle Creek’s program is jointly financed by Kellogg Community College, Bronson Battle Creek Hospital, and the Calhoun County Visitors Bureau. Aspen, Colorado, started their program as a public-private partnership and expects to have corporate sponsorship as well. Universities and tourism interests are frequent funders. In short, there are many ways to find the capital needed to start a program and fill in the gaps when user fees inevitably fall short.
This article was written by Jeremy Glover, a Research Assistant at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center. He is currently pursuing a Masters of City and Regional Planning at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.