It won’t be anything like those squeaky two-wheelers you rent for a Sunday spin around the park.
Baltimore’s Department of Transportation is in the process of selecting a vendor to operate a network of high-tech bikes and computerized kiosks to entice city dwellers and visitors to use bicycles to get around downtown and nearby neighborhoods.
Known as “bike sharing” or “smart biking,” the program has taken root in Denver, Minneapolis, Boston, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere after proving enormously popular in Europe.
The concept is simple – you pick up a bike at the nearest “B-station” and then drop it off when you’re done at any station in the network. The bikes can be accessed through a yearly membership or day pass. The individual is responsible for any damage or loss until the bike is returned to another hub and checked in.
The program is geared toward short-term use of bikes as urban transportation, not weekend recreation. To encourage brief hops from place to place rather than leisurely pedals up the bike trail, the first 30 minutes will be free to members and the next 30 minutes $1. After that, fees will rise sharply.
“We consider bike sharing as last-mile transit,” said Nate Evans, Baltimore’s “bike czar” who is working on the new network.
“It’s amazing how fast you can bike around this city. It takes 5 minutes from Federal Hill to the Inner Harbor, and it’s not much more from the Inner Harbor to Fells Point. That’s better than being stopped in traffic on Aliceanna or Fleet streets, not the mention finding a space to park.”
The city says bike sharing will reduce congestion, noise and air pollution from cars, while improving public health and generating livelier communities.
The network will also require a change in attitude among motorists who view bikes as a nuisance and see little need to “share the road.” Evans said the city has a sufficient infrastructure in place – 70 miles of marked bike lanes – for the safe passage of cyclists.
Last December, Baltimore DOT issued a request for proposals to operate the network. Two companies responded with proposals, and the city is in the final stages of selecting a vendor, Evans said.
“The vendor will be announced after they have been offered the job, accepted and [are] heading for approval by the Board of Estimates. I really have no idea how long this will take.”
The Baltimore network will be privately financed. “The city doesn’t have capital start-up funds, so we’re relying on the vendor to supply the bikes and kiosks,” Evans said. The city is hoping for sponsorship by a local corporation or a nonprofit.
Denver’s smart-bike program, for example, is operated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a $450,000 start-up grant from Kaiser Permanente and an unexpected surplus from an earlier bike sharing program called Freewheelin’.
Current plans in Baltimore call for the 250 bikes to be accessed at 25 stations. Resembling ATM machines flanked by bike-docking platforms, the stations will use “smart card” technology to enable riders to access and return bikes by swiping membership cards. One bike may be used by 10 or more riders a day.
North, South and Southeast
Evans said the network would be roughly bounded on the south by Federal Hill and Cross Street Market, on the north by Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, on the west by Camden Yards and on the southeast by Canton.
Preliminary plans call for B-stations in the Inner Harbor and Charles Center (typically close to transit hubs, such as Metro and light rail stations), and in Mt. Vernon, Penn Station, Bolton Hill, North Avenue, 25th Street, Johns Hopkins/Charles Village, Harbor East, Fells Point, Canton and possibly Patterson Park.
Depending how well the initial roll out goes, there is interest in extending the bike network east to the Johns Hopkins Medical Complex and south to Locust Point and Ft. McHenry. B-stations can be moved quite easily to serve changing ridership patterns.
Evans says bike sharing will be affordably priced, with annual membership equal to those in other cities (about $65 a year with special discounts) and a 24-hour pass costing about $4. This compares to Zipcars with a $60 annual membership and a minimum of $8 an hour for the vehicle.
The first 30 minutes of each bike ride will be free. Then the meter starts running – typically $1 for the next 30 minutes and $4 for each 30-minute period after that.
Bike sharing dates back to the 1960s in Amsterdam, when activists provided free bicycles for the masses. Within months, nearly all of the bikes were stolen or dumped into canals.
In 1974, the French city of La Rochelle launched Vélos Jaunes (“yellow bikes”) featuring unisex bicycles that were free to take and use. In terms of public usage and acceptance, it is regarded as the first successful bike sharing program. Portland, Oregon, established a bike sharing system in the 1990s, but it was discontinued due to theft, vandalism, high costs and other issues.
The problem of theft dogged most programs in Europe until so-called “smart cycling” was introducing in Lyon, France, in 2005. The system used electronic locks, credit cards and onboard computers to release and reopen cycle racks for customers. In 2007, 20,000 smart bikes were distributed among 1,450 stations through Paris, making it the largest bike sharing system in the world.
Denver launched the first large-scale system in the U.S. a year ago with a fleet of 500 bikes accessed at 50 stations. Other networks have opened in Boston, Boulder (Colo.), Chicago, Des Moines, Louisville, Madison (Wis.), St. Paul-Minneapolis, San Antonio, Washington, and, just two weeks ago, Miami Beach.
New York has plans to operate about 10,000 public bikes at 600 stations.
So far, thievery has not been a problem for the U.S. systems, according to a survey by Streetsblog. That’s because the new bikes contain parts that cannot be broken down or sold off easily and have use GPS devices for tracking and security.
With 700 bikes on the streets of Minneapolis since June, only two bikes have disappeared and a few more have had their tires slashed. Bill Dossett, manager of the system, told Streetsblog that not only good security but community pride was key to operating with such a low damage rate.
Preliminary results indicate that people are using the networks at a higher rate than expected.
Washington’s Capital Bikeshare “is well ahead of our projections” since it was launched last September, said Chris Holben, who runs the program for the District. After six months, annual membership stands at 6,100 – 50% above projections – with another 18,000 day users.
“We thought there’d be a lull over the winter, but we saw a ridership increase every month,” he said in an interview Friday. As warmer weather approaches, he expects ridership to grow.
Denver’s B-Cycle finished the 2010 season (it closed for the winter months) with 1,784 annual members and 33,000 short-term riders.
Using special tracking software, the network came up with some interesting statistics on its first year of operation: the average ride was 2.05 miles, 43% of bike trips replaced car journeys and Denver riders collectively burned off 6,333,332 calories.
“I used and enjoyed the bike sharing program in Denver,” Carol Silldorff, executive director of Bike Maryland, recalled last week. “It was an incredible experience to see so many bicyclists on a Friday night in downtown Denver.”