Colorado cities are adopting pedal power as a viable means of alternative transportation but will bike share programs catch on with commuters?
Even by the standards of bicycle-happy Boulder, Elizabeth Train is something of an extremist. She owns seven bikes. But she’s looking forward to a new service that will let her leave them all at home and still pedal around downtown.
It’s called bike sharing, and this spring Boulder will join Denver as one of the first U.S. cities to adopt this alternative transportation system. The United States is playing catch-up with the rest of the world, where bike sharing has become part of the urban experience in cities including Paris, Barcelona, London and Montreal.
“A lot of people say, ‘why do you even need a system? Everyone rides here,’ ” Train says. But for errands or a lunchtime excursion out of the office, she says, a bike share bike offers no-hassle convenience. “You get on, you ride where you need to go, dock it back in the station and walk away. It’s really a sort of liberating feeling.”
Train hopes that free feeling will spread to others in Boulder. She is one of three employees of a new nonprofit organization that will operate the city’s bike share system. Called Boulder B-cycle, the $1.1-million system is scheduled to launch May 20—just in time for Memorial Day Weekend. It will be a sister system to Denver B-cycle, which opens a second season in March.
Checking out a bike in either city is simple: Walk up to a bike kiosk, wave a membership card near the touchscreen, and a cheery red B-cycle bike pops out. Ride the bike to a kiosk closest to your destination, park it in an empty slot, and walk away. The system automatically locks the bike for the next user and records the time you spent in the saddle. Use it for less than an hour (in Boulder) or 30 minutes (in Denver), and there’s no charge beyond your membership fee. Meanwhile, an on-board computer tracks the miles you covered and the calories you burned.
Lewis Wolman, executive director of Boulder B-cycle, believes Boulderites will embrace the new system because the city has such an ingrained bike culture.
“They love bicycles. They love community. They love alternative transportation. They love sustainable ways to address urban challenges. They love solutions and they love a vital quality-of-life city,” he says.
Last spring, Denver became the first U.S. city to launch the new generation of bike share systems. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, now Colorado’s governor, joined hundreds of enthusiasts to inaugurate Denver B-cycle—appropriately enough, on Earth Day.
Later in 2010, bike share systems debuted in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Many more are launching this year, and the big Kahuna—New York City—expects to unveil a 10,000-bike system in 2012.
Before shutting down for the winter, Denver B-cycle logged nearly 103,000 rides in less than seven months. The average trip was two miles. That’s a significant number, because 40 percent of all car trips taken in the U.S. are two miles or less. Cycling advocates say that replacing even some of these car trips by bikes or other means can significantly reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions.
Denver was surprised by the low number of annual memberships compared with “walk-up” riders, Burnap said, indicating that most users were out-of-towners, or locals who used the system for recreation instead of for commuting.
“Overall, we’re really happy with the use, no matter what its reason, because it’s getting people on bikes and they’re having fun,” says Parry Burnap, executive director of Denver B-cycle.
Denver B-cycle will reopen in early March, with 500 bikes at 50 stations. Burnap hopes the system can add another 15 stations and 150 bikes this year. The biggest improvement Denver members will see this year is a redesign of the kiosk software and touchscreens. And the partnership between the Boulder and Denver systems should be especially good news for commuters. Boulder and Denver B-cycle members will be able to use the other system at no extra cost. That means a Boulder member could, for example, ride a Boulder B-cycle bike to the Boulder Transit Center, hop on the RTD Denver Express bus to downtown Denver, then pick up a Denver B-cycle bike at Union Station and pedal the last mile or two to the office.
“We just want it to be seamless,” Burnap says.
Meanwhile, a nonprofit group in Aspen hopes to launch a 100-bike system later this summer. Called WE-cycle, the system is intended to appeal to the resort town’s flood of summer visitors.
“There’s a large group of folks who come into work every day, riding the bus or driving, and we think they’ll be a huge user group,” says Philip Jeffreys, who co-founded WE-cycle with Mirte Mallory. “And, of course, there are a lot of visitors in the summer. With the congestion that we have here, we think they’ll be able to explore Aspen and experience it in a different way.”
Boulder is in many ways a natural candidate for bike sharing, even though it is the smallest U.S city to date to attempt a system.
“We basically bike at 20 times the national average, we walk at three times the national average and we ride the bus twice the national average,” said Martha Roskowski, program manager of GO Boulder, the city department that oversees alternative transportation.
The modern bike-sharing era in the United States, in fact, traces many of its roots to Boulder. The B-cycle system, which is being adopted by several U.S. communities, is a joint venture of Boulder-based advertising agency Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, along with Humana and Trek, the nation’s leading bike brand. Alex Bogusky, the now retired founding partner of Crispin, Porter, has been an outspoken advocate for bike sharing.
Trek is based in Wisconsin. But the B-cycle software is from Amadeus Consulting in Boulder, while the B-cycle kiosks and stations are made by Kiosk Information Services in Louisville.
“The reason it’s likely to be successful is that there’s an openness and a positive-mindedness, generally speaking, about anything that has to do with bicycling here,” says Tim Blumenthal, executive director of advocacy organization Bikes Belong. The presence of a bike sharing system shows that a community is serious about its cycling infrastructure, he says. “They’re almost an indicator species of a city on its way to becoming truly bike-friendly.”
Still, Boulder’s relatively small size will pose challenges. Bike share systems typically work best in densely populated urban areas where stations can be spaced closely together.
“The real question will be, will it be so popular that when you get ready to go to the Post Office or to OfficeMax or to lunch, will there be a bike in the station?” Blumenthal says. “What are the chances that there will be a station and a bike in it— or multiple bikes in it—when you come back out?”
A Bicycle Built for You
The system does its best to avoid those problems. B-cycle officials distinguish their system from bike rentals. Use a B-cycle bike for more than the minimum period, and members get socked with hefty fees: in Boulder, $4 for every half an hour after the free first hour. That’s because B-cycle requires quick turnovers. A tourist who wants take a leisurely ride along, say, Boulder Creek is encouraged to rent from a local bike shop instead.
Short, utilitarian trips is what the B-cycle bicycle is designed for. While Trek certainly has the chops to craft sleek, Tour de France-winning bikes, the B-cycle ride is a far cry from Lance Armstrong’s carbon fiber Trek Madone. The B-cycle bike is made in Taiwan, like most mid- to high-end bikes sold in the U.S. It’s made to be ridden by anyone. It’s heavy, sturdy and rugged, sporting fenders, a cushy seat and a commodious front basket.
Memberships for Denver B-cycle range from $5 for a day pass to $65 for the year. Boulder B-Cycle members will be able to buy $50 annual memberships or $5 day passes. They’ll have 200 bikes at their disposal at 25 kiosks distributed around downtown to Twenty Ninth Street.
Yet, perhaps the biggest challenge facing Boulder B-Cycle is money. Less than 30 percent of the $1.1 million it needs to launch is coming from public funds: $250,000 in federal stimulus funds, coupled with $45,000 from the City of Boulder. For the rest of its start-up costs, Boulder B-cycle is tapping the city’s business community, seeking companies willing to pay for sponsorships or to underwrite corporate memberships for employees.Google, which operates a Boulder office, has donated $25,000 to Boulder B-cycle and is also expected to buy memberships for its employees.
Once initial capital costs are covered, Wolman believes the Boulder system will be self-supporting beginning in the second year of operation.
“There’s a huge bike interest in the city,” he says, “It’s a pretty wealthy town, with a lot of successful people and successful companies.”
Denver relied on unconventional funding sources to get its program running, including a $1 million grant from the non-profit committee that organized the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Kaiser Permanente pledged $450,000 to the Denver program for the first three years. Now, Burnap is trying to raise funds to triple Denver B-cycle’s footprint to 150 kiosks and 1,500 bikes within five years.
Compared to traditional transportation projects like building freeway ramps or paving roads, bike share programs are relatively inexpensive but can have a significant impact on traffic congestion. GO Boulder’s Roskowski points out that a new pedestrian underpass costs at least $2 million to install—and the city has 76 of them.
“We’re looking at a cost of maybe $1 million to launch a bike share system, with a lot of it coming from sources outside of the city,” Roskowski says. “From that perspective, it’s a relatively inexpensive, low-risk experiment.”
The holy grail for bike share systems remains the Vélib’ system in Paris. Begun in 2007, Vélib’ boasts some 20,000 bicycles among 1,639 stations. An outdoor advertising company, JCDecaux, invested about $140 million to create the system. London last year launched a 6,000-bike system underwritten by Barclays Bank. But can it work in the U.S.?
“It’s taken a lot longer than I thought,” says Blumenthal. “But I think that we’re close. I know that New York is on the verge, San Francisco is back in the game, Portland is back in the game, and Montreal continues to do really well.”
The true test will come this spring when all those bikes will be out on the streets.
Cycle Fascists: Is bike sharing a UN threat to personal freedom?
Denver’s bike sharing program prompted one of the more bizarre footnotes to last year’s gubernatorial election in Colorado.The Republican candidate, Dan Maes, claimed that Denver B-cycle and other city environmental policies “could threaten our personal freedoms” and were “converting Denver into a United Nations community,” the Denver Post reported during the campaign.
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic nominee, had been a supporter of the bike sharing program.
“These aren’t just warm, fuzzy ideas from the mayor. These are very specific strategies that are dictated to us by this United Nations program that mayors have signed on to,” Maes said, referring to Denver’s membership in an obscure organization, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, which the city joined long before Hickenlooper took office.
According to the Post, Maes said he once thought bike sharing and other environmental efforts were harmless. But he soon realized, “that’s exactly the attitude they want you to have. This is bigger than it looks like on the surface, and it could threaten our personal freedoms.”
Maes’ dark suspicions didn’t gain much traction with voters. He ended up a distant third place — finishing far behind independent candidate Tom Tancredo. Hickenlooper and his U.N. dictates, meanwhile, cruised into the governor’s office with a comfortable 51 percent of the vote.
Denver B-cycle officials tried to stay out of the controversy, although executive director Parry Burnap said that Maes’ comments had “no basis in any reality at all. Nothing.”
For B-cycle, there was a bright side to the brouhaha. Maes was ridiculed in YouTube parodies, T-shirt slogans and by TV commentators including Keith Olbermann, giving the fledgling program more publicity than it could ever have generated through its small marketing budget.
Share the cycle… ditch the road rage
Join these bike share programs now to start commuting in the spring:
Launch: May 20
200 Bikes at 20 Kiosks
Annual Membership: $50
Day Membership: $5
Re-opening: Early March
500 Bikes at 50 Kiosks
Annual Membership: $65
30-Day Membership: $30
7-Day Membership: $20
Day Membership: $5
Launch: Summer 2011
100 Bikes at 10 Kiosks
Membership Prices (Estimated):