Is Atlanta ready for bike sharing?


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Is Atlanta ready for bike sharing?

Got a quick errand to run? A leisurely afternoon to explore? Or a few miles to get home from a MARTA station?

If so, and if you live or work in Atlanta, you are just the sort who could benefit from the city’s aspiration to put more than 50 short-term bicycle rental stations and at least 500 bicycles at locations around town.

Atlanta is the latest city to catch on to the concept of bike sharing, a movement that is spreading across the country. Three companies have submitted proposals to the city of Atlanta on how they would design and operate the system. The proposal deemed most suitable following an evaluation process will be recommended to the City Council on Aug. 23, with a contract to be executed by October.

The program could be up and running in about 18 months if all goes as planned, said Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition.

Many aspects are yet to be determined. What stations will look like? Where will they be located? What will users pay to rent bicycles? And how much, if any, public dollars will be needed to fund the system?

Then there’s the other big question: Will people use the bicycles?

A few years ago, Serna probably would have said no. The city had a well-earned reputation for being unsafe for cyclers, lacking enough dedicated lanes to keep bikers away from impatient motorists.

Even today, many bicyclists like Carolyn Richardson, 39, who pedals from her Grant Park home to her Georgia State University job five days a week, say the streets remain dangerous, between potholes and cars hogging the road. There are no bike lanes along her route, Richardson said.

“I often have to ride on sidewalks because I don’t feel cars respect bicyclists,” Richardson said. “I don’t feel I am given enough room.”

But Atlanta is making strides toward becoming a more bike-friendly destination. City officials want to double its bike lanes and shared-use paths from 60 to 120 miles by 2016.

In February, City Council allocated $2.4 million to fund 26 projects such as shared-use paths and bike lanes buffered from the road by curbs, metal posts or wide paint striping. One project currently under construction is a two-way cycle-track along 10th Street along Piedmont Park in Midtown.

“You may not see a lot of infrastructure there right now,” said Joshuah Mello, Atlanta’s assistant director for transportation planning. “But a lot of the investments we’re going to make in bike lanes and shared-use paths are going to be in the same area where the bike program is introduced. So we are concurrently building the infrastructure at the same time we are rolling out the bike sharing program.”

The plans are part of Mayor Kasim Reed’s aim to make Atlanta one of the top 10 cities in the nation for cyclists commuting to work and bicycle safety, Mello said. (Atlanta ranked 23rd for biking to work and 17th in cycling safety, according to a 2012 report by the Alliance for Biking & Walking.)

Taxpayers may not necessarily need to bankroll the project, which would cost between $6-13 million. Some systems in other cities are paid for entirely by user fees, advertising and corporate sponsorships. Serna said the city could also tap into federal grant money to fund part of the project.

Popularity of bike sharing has soared in recent years. In 2010, there were only three U.S. cities with such programs. Today, there are about 25, according to Paul DeMayo, the founder of MetroBike, which operates the Capital Bikeshare program in Washington, D.C.

A study published in January by the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition analyzed whether bike sharing was feasible in Atlanta and Decatur. The researchers found that a 14-square-mile swath of the city that includes portions of Buckhead, Downtown, Midtown and other in-town neighborhoods would be the best area to launch a program.

A ready market of potential customers exist within that zone and officials estimate the program could draw 30,000 casual users a year and 3,422 annual members.

The bicycles would most likely be outfitted with GPS tracking devices to deter thieves and assure that bicycles are evenly distributed at the stations. Users would probably have the option to purchase an annual or day pass.

Reaction to the program idea was positive among MARTA riders exiting the North Avenue Station on Wednesday. An objective of the program is to place rental stations near all intown MARTA stops.

Devon Horton, who is interning for an insurance company this summer, has seen the bike share program work in his hometown of Washington and thinks Atlantans could benefit, too.

“In D.C., it’s a different situation, but I think it would be very convenient to have it here,” said Horton, adding that he might consider renting a bicycle during a date.

Patrick Davis, a restaurant cook, once rented a bicycle in a Dallas, Texas, park and would do the same in Atlanta, if given the opportunity.

“It’d be cool if it was not raining and it was a sunny day, to hop off the (MARTA) train and hop on a bike,” Davis said.

The city of Decatur is strongly considering a bike-share site as well, but the city is holding off on seeking proposals for designing and installing a system, according to Decatur Planning Director Amanda Thompson.

“The city of Atlanta is moving a little faster than us,” Thompson said. “We’re definitely going to be watching and seeing how it all works.”

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