Moving Forward with Bike-Share

Cities across the US are learning to bike-share. On March 14th, the Portland City Council submitted a request for a proposal to find a vendor to install and operate a bike share program. “Bike-share will be a great addition to North America’s most bike-friendly city. It’s a simple, attractive alternative to making quick trips by car”  Portland Mayor Sam Adams stated on the Portland Bureau of Transportation website.

Portland has tried in the past to begin a bike-share program. In 1994 it created a free Yellow Bike Project, but unfortunately, due to theft and vandalism, it was not sustainable. This was followed by a program that provides free bikes to selected low-income people who need a bike to get to work. In late 2011, the city was granted a two million dollar grant to get a city-wide program up and running.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of bike-sharing, the program allows residents and tourists to rent a bicycle from central, accessible locations within the city. It allows citizens to rent bicycles to run errands, go exploring, or simply as a convenient form of exercise and transport. At the end of their trip, they return the bicycle to any designated rack within the city.

Portland is far from the first city to implement such a program.  Currently 16 bike-share programs operate in the US, including Washington DC, Denver, Boston and Minneapolis, and 14 more are being planned. Programs are now appearing around the world, in Australia, South America, India, and China.

The first bike share program was developed in The Netherlands (Amsterdam) in the summer of 1965. This “White Bicycle” plan provided free bicycles that were supposed to be used for one trip and then left for someone else. Most of the bicycles were stolen within one month, the rest left badly damaged.

Electronic bike racks were introduced in the late 1990s in a bike-share program created in Portsmouth, UK.   “Smart cards” were used to help limit theft and damage. Each card is issued to a cyclist for a small fee, and allows them access to a locked bicycle rack. The bike “renter” card is kept on file when receiving the smart card, and is charged if the bicycle comes back damaged or late. There were also video surveillance devices installed to monitor the bike racks 24 hours.

Vélib', a large-scale bicycle sharing system in Paris, France is one of the most successful programs in the world. Launched in July of 2007, the system has expanded to encompass around 18,000 bicycles and 1,200 bicycle stations around Paris and surrounding municipalities. This system uses an electronic system to account for the bicycles, and charges users if the bicycle is lost or stolen while in use.

In order to incorporate a successful bicycle system within your municipality, some important steps must be taken to ensure its successful implementation.

1.  Provide enough bicycles to meet the demand

If there aren’t enough bicycles to successfully meet the demand of the city, patrons will become discouraged from using the service. Conduct city-wide polls of how much interest is garnered in the project and use these numbers to decide on how many bicycles will need to be provided.

2. Encourage local business sponsorship to help offset cost

As for local businesses to help pay for bike rack stations near their businesses. It may also be profitable if the city sells space on the bicycles for advertisements. It will be the most effective if the advertisements are geared toward cycling, public car share programs, or other alternative forms of transport.

3. Implement security devices to insure that bicycles aren’t stolen

Most previous attempts to provide public bike share programs have been thwarted by bike thieves. Electronic bike racks that account for the amount of time the bike was used, and that it was returned properly have been the most successful. Bikes should be equipped with a GPS unit, or other tracking mechanism.

4. Bikes should be distinctive and highly visible. Ensure strong public outreach

In their design, coloring, and labeling, bikes should be clearly branded as part of a bike-share fleet. Public promotion and education is important.

5. Ensure bikes can be easily adjusted to accommodate the user, seats can be securely locked in place, and a suitable helmet policy is considered.

It is imperative that these bicycles can safely accommodate almost everyone, male and female, youth and elders. In the near future is it hoped that children’s bikes will be made available. Helmet policies will vary according to location, but consider appropriate helmet rentals, and subsidies to support bike use.

6. Robust bicycle construction for durability and rider comfort

The construction of the bicycle should be able to withstand a certain amount of abuse by the riders. Bicycles with upright handlebars are most comfortable for a large array of people. Bicycles should include baskets in front and luggage support/child seats in the rear for those wishing to use the bikes to run errands, bike to the kindergarten, grocery store, et cetera. Robust fenders, chain guards and cable covers should be included.

7. Place bicycle racks close to high pedestrian traffic areas/ other multi-modal transit stops

Bicycles are most heavily used in central municipal areas, near college campuses and at public transit stops. Encouraging bike ridership near light rail or bus stations will discourage citizens from using an automobile. Ease, accessibility, and security are necessary facets of a bike-share program.

8. Develop a low cost strategy to keep the program up and running

State, local and federal funds will depend on the area in which you live. Federal grants are available for alternative transport projects, and state funds sometimes encompass these sorts of projects. Garnering local support for a bike-share program will help raise funds and provide volunteers to man the bike stations.

9. Ensure proper maintenance and management

Maintenance of the bikes (tire pressure, gear change), and of the station locking systems and electronic process is essential. Research on patterns of use, especially commuter patterns, will help ensure availability where and when needed.

10. Ensure the city provides a safe network of dedicated bike routes, bike lanes and traffic calmed streets

Clear signage, painted bike lanes and bike boxes, and bike maps are important supports for a successful bike-share program.

A number of websites such as Transport Canada and MarinBike, can provide additional guidance for developing a successful bike-share program.