Austin eyes San Antonio's bike-share program
When Andrew Holzmann got tapped for jury duty recently, he didn't worry about finding and paying for a parking spot downtown.
Instead, he parked a few miles away at the Pearl Brewery, checked out a bicycle from the city's new B-cycle program and pedaled to the courthouse.
"I like the convenience," the 24-year-old investment analyst said while taking another of the sturdy, gray bikes out for a spin during a lunch break. "You don't have to worry about parking, it's cheaper than gas, and the bikes are really nice. The only thing I'm a little concerned about is how hot it gets in summertime."
San Antonio became the first city in Texas to install a bike-share system last month, when it opened 14 B-cycle stations within a few miles of downtown.
Now Austin is considering spending about $1.8 million, plus operating costs of about $225,000 per year, to put in a similar system.
It would start with 30 stations and 300 bikes but could eventually expand to 70 stations with 700 bikes, said Annick Beaudet, head of the city's Bicycle Program.
The city would apply for grant money to help cover costs. If Austin officials find a business model that will work, a bike-share system could be up and running within two years. Officials would work to make memberships, grants and possibly advertising sustain it.
As urban areas look for ways to efficiently move people around, Denver, Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis and Washington have all put in bike-share systems in recent years. An estimated 200 cities around the world, including Paris, London, Barcelona and Berlin, now have them.
Proponents say bike sharing can reduce traffic congestion and improve users' health. Most cities, including San Antonio, team with a nonprofit or private-sector partner for operations.
Many are considered successful, although vandalism and theft have been problems in some places. In Paris, which began a program in 2007, thousands of bikes were stolen, dumped into the Seine River or hung from light posts in the first two years, according to a 2009 article by The New York Times. Those problems have decreased since locking mechanisms were improved and users were required to use credit cards to buy memberships.
Theft hasn't been as much of a problem in the United States. Just one bike in Minneapolis' NiceRide system, which operates 65 stations with 700 bikes, has disappeared in the five months the program has been operating, said Executive Director Bill Dossett.
NiceRide, which shuts down during the winter, has recorded 100,000 trips and sold 1,300 memberships and about 30,000 day passes. It's funded through memberships and private sponsorships and has broken even financially, Dossett said.
"The experience has really shown cities across the U.S. that this will work here and it's going to be accepted as smart, healthy transportation," Dossett said.
Seven months after it opened, Capital Bikeshare, a regional system in Washington and Arlington County, Va., is ahead of projections for membership and usage, said Chris Holben, bicycle program specialist with the District Department of Transportation.
The 114-station, 1,100-bike system was installed with $5 million in federal money. Officials expect user fees to pay for about half of the $2.3 million a year in operating costs. The system has 9,500 members.
Back in San Antonio, users can check out one of 140 three-speed bicycles from a network of automated stations and return the bike to any station. Each bike is equipped with a lock, a roomy front basket, a bell and a covered chain to prevent pant legs or skirt hems from getting caught. Riders are encouraged to bring helmets.
The front-heavy bikes weigh about 40 pounds (compared with 20 to 30 pounds for a traditional bike), and some might find them awkward at first.
San Antonio used about $850,000 in grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Centers for Disease Control to put in its system, which began in March, said Julia Diana, an analyst for the city's Office of Environmental Policy. That paid for bikes, computerized kiosks and docking stations.
"Locals have embraced it, and visitors seem excited to try it," said Cindi Snell, executive director of San Antonio's B-cycle program.
Officials hope to expand to 50 stations with 500 bicycles within two years, at an estimated cost of $1.75 million.
In a city with such historic roots, it wasn't easy to decide where to put the stations.
"We had a lot of convincing to do," Snell said. "The original 14 stations are all in historic areas. There couldn't be one in front of the Alamo, so we're across the street. We really had to show them bikes are not clutter."
By the second week, about 500 people had purchased memberships for the introductory price of $25. The regular rate will be $60 per year. Members may ride the bikes in 30-minute intervals for free. They pay $2 for each additional half-hour.
Members can track their mileage online, see how many calories they've burned, check their carbon offsets and estimate how much money they've saved by leaving the car at home.
Bike World, a longtime bike shop, runs the San Antonio program. It created a nonprofit organization called San Antonio BikeShare to apply for grants. It also sells advertising space on metal signs on the bikes' baskets.
In Austin, the city's Bicycle Program, in coordination with its Transportation Department, plans to gauge interest in a bike-share program during the next six to eight weeks.
"We do think it can work in Austin," said Beaudet, head of the city's bike program.
Officials are researching systems that operate in other U.S. cities, examining how they obtained right of way for stations, purchased bikes and kiosks, and maintain equipment.
The city hosted a one-day demonstration of B-cycle at City Hall in November.
The bikes "were surprisingly easy to ride, and that's a good sign because Austin's a little hillier than San Antonio," Beaudet said.
Sites for bike stations have not been picked but would focus on the downtown and University of Texas areas, with some stations south of Lady Bird Lake and at popular destinations such as Barton Springs Pool and Zilker Park, Beaudet said.
Each kiosk, where customers swipe membership or credit cards to check out bikes, costs $40,000 to $50,000. The heavy-duty bikes cost about $1,000 each and $1,000 to $3,000 a year to maintain.
One potential source of funding could be the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which will open applications for $74 million in grants for surface transportation projects in May. At least 15 percent of that funding will be allocated to bicycle and pedestrian improvements, said Greg Griffin, a senior planner at CAMPO.
Unlike Austin's Yellow Bike Project, started in 1997 as a nonprofit organization that refurbished bikes, painted them yellow and put them on city streets for free use, a bike share is a pay-to-use system. Yellow Bike still operates in Austin, releasing the occasional herd of free bicycles, but its focus is as a cycling advocacy group and community bike shop where people can borrow tools and work on their own bikes.
Beaudet said the program could work in Austin because the workforce is young. As for worries that summer heat would make cycling unappealing, she pointed to Portland and Minneapolis, which have bustling cycling scenes despite rain and cold.
Back in San Antonio, Richard Barrett, 69, took a bus from his home in the suburbs to downtown, checked out a bike and rode it to the historic missions.
"It's a great concept," said the retired U.S. Army officer. He said he felt more comfortable riding on paths than downtown streets and worried that some people not used to cycling might be intimidated riding in traffic.
"San Antonio was one of the last towns I would have expected to develop a system like this because it has a reputation as not being one of the most bike-friendly places in the world," he said.