Bike share programs are a new phenomenon for urban America. There’s different models for different cities but the concept is rapidly growing from metro to metro. Heck, Fargo even has one. About 80 U.S. cities have them, big and small, from New York City to Pullman (yep, Pullman).
Perhaps it’s time Spokane gets in the game? After all, “To be a world class city, you need to have a bike share program,” said Bill Dossett, executive director of the Twin Cities’ bike share program.
I agree with Dossett’s assertion and, I might add, bike share programs are now one of several factors that convey a city’s 21st century mentality.
It’s time for Spokane to get in the bike share game. Here’s a bike share plan for Spokane that can turn a good idea into reality.
Step 1: Do not, I repeat, DO NOT commission an expensive study from an outside firm to “launch” the process.
A classic Spokane blunder is the move toward commissioning a study to analyze new ideas. Let’s not get caught in the analysis paralysis trap. The bike share riddle ain’t hard to crack. A few hours of light internet research and perhaps a phone call or two from a staff planner is all the studying we need to develop expertise about bike share and how to make it work. Save that $50k you would spend on a study and apply it toward system start-up expenses.
Step 2: Form a light and nimble working group to advance the process.
This is not the step to decide who might own and operate the system. The planning process that follows will shake out the best answer to the ownership question. That said, however, our working group ought to include all the potential owners of the system. The best stakeholders in the working group are those that 1) have the authority to place bike share racks wherever they might go, 2) might be able to help fund the project, and 3) might be able to help administer operations of the program.
Based on the above criteria, four entities come to mind, including:
- City of Spokane (because it’s their streets and sidewalks the system will utilize);
- Spokane Transit Authority (because they’re in the transit business);
- Spokane Regional Transportation Council (because they’re in the regional transportation planning business); and
- Spokane Regional Health District (because they’re in the urban health business).
By my count, that’s a committee of four.
Step 3: Have the public help decide where the bike share racks are placed and actively engage social media with every step of the remaining planning process.
Engaging the public is the true launch of the system and represents both an opportunity to generate excitement and gain public feedback. And I’m not talking about your standard protocol “open house” whereby a couple of stodgy bureaucrats provide free coffee and cookies to the geriatrics that wonder in to complain about the scourge of Agenda 21 or how their neighbor’s dog just won’t shut up. I’m talking about crowd-sourcing this mother. Circulating simple mapping software on social media platforms will generate an educated response from the market most likely to utilize the program. Public or private, there’s hardly a better way to engage the market then asking where it prefers bike share services are located, and it’s a sure-fire way to build excitement and support for the project.
Step 4: Decide the size and scope of the initial service area.
Generally speaking, within the service area, one person should never be more than two blocks away from the nearest bike share rack. Bike share racks must be dense enough to maximize ease of use and minimize the risk that some poor fellow is stuck with a bike and can’t find a rack.
More broadly speaking, like most transit initiatives, density and access matter. Brown’s Addition, downtown, and the University District are, cumulatively, the best neighborhoods to launch a bike share program. Smart placement of racks near planned stops on the Central City Line, near the bus plaza, near dorms, apartments, condos, trails, River Park Square, Riverfront Park, the convention center, hotels, large classroom buildings, office buildings, and on and on, will maximize bike share usage (revenue) potential.
Density and ease of access are keys to success.
Step 5: Don’t over regulate.
Seattle is one of the few cities that require system users to wear a helmet to rent a bike. Their system is losing money. Don’t over regulate.
Step 6: Plan for the perfect system, plan for excellence, and make it smart.
In the next step, we’ll worry about money. Right now, however, we’re still planning for the perfect system. Let’s place bike racks based on public feedback and smart business to maximize demand and revenue for the system.
Schematically finalize prospective bike rack locations and the number of bikes for each location (different locations will likely require a different number of bikes).
Solar power the bike racks and key card systems, build an app and web page with a map of rack locations and ability to purchase online, have each individual rack talk to your database about the number of check-outs and check-ins, and create a tight inventory management system that can easily track losses and maintenance data. Finally, place a few hidden GPS devises on a few bikes, like you’re collaring polar bears in the Arctic, to track usage and range for individual bikes.
Step 7: Calculate costs.
It costs roughly $5,000 per bike, all in, to launch a new bike share program (Google it, you’ll find several sources regarding cost [see Step 1]). Thus, 100 bikes is a $500,000 launch, 200 bikes is a $1,000,000 launch, and so on.
Step 8: Figure out how to pay for the system.
There is a two-step funding process to start a new bike share program: 1) the initial hard costs of purchasing bike racks and bikes and the labor to install the new equipment, and 2) money for system maintenance, replacement expenses, and labor.
Let’s start with funding the initial hard costs (equipment and installation). New York City secured $50,000,000 in sponsorship revenue to launch their bike share program, Citi Bike (guess who the prime sponsor is?) a few years ago.
It’s possible Spokane’s system may be able to self-fund hard costs by selling naming rights and sponsorships. However, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, the market for naming rights in Spokane is weaker than the market in New York City; i.e., let’s assume we still have a gap to fill.
The gap may be filled in one of three ways (or a combination of all of them):
- A direct allocation from a public entity’s general fund — a simple approach but probably not preferable given higher funding priorities across the metro;
- A debt transaction serviced by future revenue generated from the bike share system. Take note, however, that no lender will lend to a new bike share program without a guarantee from a robust public entity, like the City of Spokane; and
- State or federal transportation congestion reduction grant programs.
Now that we have a plan to cover hard costs, let’s pay for ongoing expenses. Bike share has proven time and again, metro to metro, that the concept can pay for itself. Bike share is market driven by the following revenue streams:
- Monthly user fees;
- Daily user fees; and
- Naming rights or exclusive sponsorships.
Expenses for the system are what you might expect, including:
- Maintenance and replacement;
- Labor to maintain the system; and
- Debt service (if applicable).
Based on the above revenue and expenses, we can now build a pro forma based on the perfect bike share plan that we have developed up through Step 7. Within the pro forma we can test sensitivity of different variables to move toward conclusions about price points on the products we’re offering, such as monthly user passes.
Step 9: Decide who owns and operates the system.
Note how an ownership decision is one of the last steps in our planning process and not one of the first. There are a lot of variables the planning process will flush out that point to who might be the best owner of the new bike share system. Perhaps it’s one of the four public agencies in our working group (see Step 2). Perhaps there is need for city council to create a public development authority to manage the program. Who knows? Whatever the answer may be, the planning process will solve the ownership riddle.
Step 10: Pay for the system and launch.
In a perfect world, launch would take place right around Mother’s Day.
Step 11: Track data and adapt to what it tells you.
Is one station constantly short on bikes while another is always full? Adapt to what the market is telling you.
World class cities have bike share programs, there are numerous business models that have proven successful, and the nuanced planning details of how to create a successful bike share system have been discovered and replicated across the country. Bike share programs and what makes them work are no longer a mystery and, the best part is, Spokane can very easily get in the game. Let’s start with Step 1 and see what happens.
*Cover photo a bike rack in Minneapolis.