Bike-sharing plans get traction in Atlanta

Bike-sharing around the world

A variety of business plans — including private ownership, city ownership or a mixture — have helped bike-sharing get rolling in major cities.

Boston’s system got a big boost from the corporate sponsorship of sports shoe manufacturer New Balance. In New York, Citibank’s largess helped. In Minneapolis, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota pledged up to $1.5 million for an expansion of the system.

In the Washington, D.C., area, Capital Bikeshare offers more than 1,670 bicycles at more than 175 stations.

“We have made some tremendous strides in making biking more mainstream,” said Paul DeMaio at MetroBike, a bike-sharing consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. “It’s really just a matter of making the municipality bike-friendly and they will come.”

Meanwhile in Chattanooga, a $2 million federal grant helped pay for equipment and operations. Less than six months after launching, Chattanooga now has 28 bike-sharing stations and about 300 bikes that have serviced nearly 10,000 trips.

The system is aimed at downtown workers and residents, as well as tourists and students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

“This is one of the first large-scale systems in the Southeast,” said Philip Pugliese, bicycle coordinator of Outdoor Chattanooga. “It fills a gap in transportation choice. We have a very walkable and bikeable city already. We really wanted to remove those barriers of convenience and accessibility and let people enjoy grabbing a bike.”

Some of the world’s biggest bike-sharing programs are in France, where Paris has more than 20,000 bikes spread across a regional service, and in China, where some cities have 60,000 bikes or more. Montreal has about 6,000 bikes.

Bike-sharing is not just for European hipsters anymore.

It started with a batch of white bikes used communally in Amsterdam in the 1960s. Now, the concept of setting up stations around an urban hub to provide shared bicycles for short-term rentals has popped up in Charlotte, Chattanooga, Miami Beach, New York, Washington, D.C., and on Georgia Tech’s campus.

Atlanta officials and local biking advocates point to a new study that indicates large-scale bike-sharing could be feasible here. City planners look to Decatur, the Beltline and in-town neighborhoods close to MARTA stations as fertile ground for bike-sharing. And it’s not just for the skinny-jeans set either.

Despite metro Atlanta’s car-centric reputation, bike advocates believe reduced gas costs, connections from buses and trains to jobs centers and the opportunity to burn a few calories while seeing the city on two wheels would prove appealing if bike-sharing goes mainstream.

“That’s kind of the beauty of it,” said Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, who helped organize the feasibility study. “The bikes are so accessible that it doesn’t appeal to only one demographic.”

The challenge: There is no dedicated money stream for building a bike-sharing network in Atlanta. Federal grants aimed at congestion mitigation and air quality could be one option, but there’s no guarantee that money will be available. Organizers are pondering corporate sponsorships as one way to bridge the gap.

“Given where our peer cities are … we could easily fall behind some of our peer cities if we don’t move relatively quickly,” said Josh Mello, a transportation expert in the city’s planning department. “The more people travel and they experience bike-sharing systems around the world, they’re going to want to experience the same amenities.”

Kyle Azevedo was a graduate student at Georgia Tech when he and some buddies noticed the popularity of bike-sharing in Europe. They reasoned that a college campus presented the perfect demographic for a bike-sharing experiment, with a community of people who need to take short trips, run errands and get to class faster.

Azevedo helped establish ViaCycle, a bike-sharing company that now has about 40 bikes at Georgia Tech and recently passed the 1,000-trip-per-month mark. ViaCycle has also moved into George Mason University in northern Virginia.

“Bikes don’t have to be just something you ride as a kid,” Azevedo said. “They can be really useful, real affordable and they can make a difference.”

Bike-sharing technology generally requires users to pay with credit cards and bikes can be outfitted with GPS tracking devices to discourage theft. In Washington, those deterrents have kept the rare of bike theft below 1 percent.

Short trips of a half-hour are sometimes free if the bike is returned to a check-in station promptly. Fines for late returns can escalate. It’s like a library check-out, one expert explained. Some systems offer day passes and annual memberships.

Ambitious plans do not always pan out. A handful of bike-sharing services have closed in Europe and Latin America after jurisdictions decided they were not attracting enough riders.

In Chicago, a bike-sharing program that was supposed to offer 3,000 bikes at 300 stations this summer has been delayed until the spring. Investigators are looking into a rival bidder’s claim that the bid process was rigged in favor of an Oregon company that once hired a Chicago official as a consultant.

Bike-sharing is one of several ideas intended to make Atlanta more friendly to pedestrians and bikers. Key details have yet to come, including how much the program might cost and exactly how many bikes Atlanta could sustain . But the basic plan would be to start service in the core of the city, where there are a lot of tourism amenities, and extend out from there, Mello said.

Stephen Lucas commutes to a downtown advertising agency by bike every day. He said he believes bike-sharing could work well in Atlanta’s warm weather, but wondered about theft and safety.

“We’d need some real bike lanes installed in most of the city,” he said. “I think Atlanta would be ideal in many ways for bike-sharing. But to do that, we’d need to make the city more bike-friendly.”