Atlanta’s bike share program rolling along

City program gives biking “to the people”

Becky Katz is sitting in a hive of transit. Underneath Woodruff Park, MARTA trains run north and south while above ground people hop streetcars and buses or use their own two feet to get to work, coffee shops and other weekday morning destinations.

This summer Katz, 29, helped implement a new way for Atlanta to get from point A to point B. It's bright blue with a basket on the front and it was riding past her on Auburn Avenue.

“You see, those people may have not had access to that before and now they’re out there riding around,” Katz told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, pointing to a pair of riders. “I didn’t plan that, I swear.”

In June, Atlanta launched its bike-share program, Relay, in partnership with the private company CycleHop. Would-be riders rent bikes from a station for about an hour at a time then return them to another station or nearby location.

Katz, the city’s Chief Bicycle Officer, oversaw the rollout of 100 bikes at 10 stations. That will expand to 500 bikes at 60 to 70 stations by the end of the year. Katz said the program has found its niche in a sprawling city notorious for its gridlock.

For Katz, the beauty of bike sharing is the accessibility it provides. Not long ago, a short trip through downtown could be a hassle whether it required waiting for a train, parking a car or trekking on foot.

Bikes were always an option but owning one was a serious investment. Now someone can ride to the grocery store or get to a MARTA station at a cost of $8 per day or $20 per month.

“It takes biking and it gives it to the people,” Katz said.

Katz is originally from New York City but spent the better part of her time travelling before coming to Atlanta five years ago. After graduating from Cornell University in 2009 she considered joining the Peace Corps, but instead attended grad school in Saudi Arabia. After that she took time off to travel in India and Nepal for five months.

Five years ago, she moved to Atlanta while her partner completed his graduate degree at Georgia Tech.

With a degree in civil and environmental engineering, Katz knew she wanted to work for the public rather than an engineering firm. She got started working for Park Pride in Atlanta, helping communities develop and improve their parks.

In October 2015, the city brought Katz on to head a bike sharing project it’d been working on for more than two years. Her job since has been to make bike share possible and effective.

Katz said Relay’s become just that.

In less than two months, Relay logged 2,193 trips covering a total of 4,386 miles. That’s an average of about 40 trips per day, according to data from the bikes’ GPS units. Those numbers are on track with projections, said CycleHop CEO Josh Squire. Ridership is expected to increase when the summer heat subsides.

Many of those trips and miles are used to fill what transit experts call the “last-mile problem,” getting to and from existing transit or making the small trips where a train ride or car trip isn’t necessary.

“It really gives people a flexibility that wasn’t presented before, and another option,” Katz said. “Our transit environment is best when we have lots of options.”

Bike sharing isn't new to the rest of the country, but Katz said Atlanta got into the game at just the right time. With two upcoming transportation tax votes and new bike-only lanes popping up downtown, bike culture in the city is growing.

For Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, it’s a tremendously exciting time.

“We’re transitioning to a point where bike culture is becoming a part of Atlanta’s culture,” Serna said.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges.

One of the necessary steps to make the program sustainable is finding sponsorship, which amounts for a large part of its business model.

So far, Relay hasn’t partnered with any companies and CycleHop is absorbing the cost.

However, Squire said this was to be expected. Some cities wait to roll out their bike share until they’ve find a partner, causing years of delay, he said.

With Atlanta, CycleHop wanted to introduce the idea of bike sharing first because the city historically has not been conducive to biking culture.

Now that people know the blue bikes and see their value, Squire said partnerships are on the table with the hope that a deal is reached by the end of the year.

Katz sees the same progress in her community outreach. Before Relay, some didn’t know what a bike share was, much less it’s value. Now whether people use it or not, there’s a good chance they at least understand it.

But more rewarding than that is hearing how Relay isn’t just a fun attraction for the city, but a necessary tool in some people’s lives.

One email in particular sticks out in Katz mind when she thinks about that group.

A while back, for a bicycling event, Relay set up virtual hubs away from stations where riders could drop off bikes without an additional charge.

One man emailed her saying he’d lived in Atlanta for 10 years without ever using a bike, but now he rode one every day to run errands or make appointments. And while he wanted to let her know he loved Relay, he also needed to see some changes.

“’You’ve got to put those virtual hubs back up,’” Katz remembered reading. “‘You’re killing me.’”