Is bike sharing success a real possibility for Detroit?

Bike sharing is blowing up like craft beer -- once seen as vaguely foreign or pretentious, it’s become practically mainstream. Famously, New York City’s Citi Bikes have taken hold in a way that few would have imagined (much to the chagrin of Delia Ephron and political conservatives). From Paris to Chicago to DC, it’s become almost de riguer for a self-respecting urban center to offer bike share.

For total newbies to the concept, bike share is a system in which a bike is made available for shared use by individuals for very short periods of time. For example, you would "check out" a bike from the system, check it back in at the station closest to your destination and, if you needed another bike to return, would again check out a bike. 

Bike share differs from bike rental, in which you would likely ride your rental to a destination, lock it up, then unlock it to again ride it. This matters because bike sharing is most successful in cities where the bikes are used many times a day -- in Montreal, a bike share standard-bearer, that number is five. In Washington DC’s first bike share system, which famously failed, that number was one.

Clearly, Detroit’s density -- or lack thereof -- poses a challenge to the development of a successful system which, as was demonstrated in DC, is not even close to a guarantee.

Wayne State University’s interest in bike share landed the concept in the hands of its Department of Economic Development, where Lisa Nuszkowski became tasked with taking a closer look. She quickly realized a successful system required a serious investigation and thus undertook a bike share feasibility study.

To execute the study, WSU contracted with Alta Planning + Design, a company with national experience with bike share studies and implementation, and Living Lab, a Detroit planning firm that could bring local nuance to the work. They took an in-depth read of systems in Minneapolis (which shares our weather, an issue often cited as a deterrent here) and San Antonio (which is also a sprawling city that lacks great transit). The team also studied a variety of funding models in determining where the money would come from to both build and sustain a system.

For a first phase, the study recommends 35 stations and 350 bikes (compare that to NYC’s 300+ stations and 6,000 bikes) with most located in Midtown and Downtown and at least two stations each in Mexicantown, Corktown, Woodbridge, New Center and Lafayette Park. The cost is estimated at $7.5 million over five years -- including capital, launch, administration and operating costs -- which would be paid for by a combination of user fees, sponsorship and private funding. WSU is now looking for funding from grants and potential sponsors with the hopes of a 2015 launch.

As the co-owner of a bike shop that rents bikes, I've thought long and hard about how bike-sharing might impact my business. I am in business to make money, after all, and it's human nature to grasp at our very own piece of the pie, however tiny it might be. Some bike store owners in Chicago have even advocated against bike share stations in their neighborhood. 

Ultimately, I think more butts on bikes is good for my own bottom line. Nuszkowski calls bike share "a gateway drug" to biking regularly, and I would agree. Many people who have not recently experienced the convenience and, dare I say, fun of riding a bike might give it a shot when the bike share option presents itself and hopefully, that person will want to bike more often and will evolve into a customer. 

As for our rental business, the pricing structure of bike share typically incentivizes ultra-short uses. Plus, bike share bikes are heavy. The typical visitor or local family that really wants to ride is likely going to prefer a rental.

In some cities, bike share programs work with local shops to offer helmet discounts to bike share members. Nuszkowski says they are also considering working with bike companies to help provide education and outreach for the system, which is a big part of rolling out what in essence is a brand-new transportation system.

"This would help create better, safer bikers and it engages people in a way that only benefits both bike companies and bike share," she says.

If this part of the bike share story strikes you as too personal, I'll give you that critique as fair. But I think it's important to acknowledge that doing business in Detroit can be tough and, oftentimes, new and flashy doesn’t concern itself with what's already on the ground -- and I'd argue that a little integration and collaboration can be a boon to new and old alike. 

I hope I'm not reading this article in five years with tears streaming down my face, but at least I'll be able to hop on a bike share bike to take me to my Protectionism Society meeting.

If you're interested, the entire bike share feasibility study can be found here.

Addendum to this story: The same day this article was published, Public Bike System Company -- owner of Bixi, perhaps the best-known bike share system — filed for bankruptcy protection. The relationship between Alta and Bixi can be called, as it was by the New York Times, "opaque," but Alta both plans for and studies (as in Detroit) and operates (as in Chatanooga, NYC and Chicago) bike share systems. 

At the root of the issue is systems technology -- on its face, it is long-term financial feasibility, as membership fees alone are not able to cover system costs, no matter how popular they become.

Read Alta’s official statement here; a brief overview of the situation at The Verge; NPR's take here; and an in-depth look at the issues involved in the NY Times.

As for how this impacts Detroit’s proposed system, it might not. Bixi has not been selected as an operator of the proposed Detroit system. As for funding, sponsorship as well as government and foundation funds have been considered necessary throughout the process. Being late to the party might allow Detroit the opportunity to learn from and improve upon some of the earlier systems.

Kelli Kavanaugh is a former Model D development news editor. She co-owns Wheelhouse Detroit Bike Shop and is co-director of Tour de Troit. She is raring to throat-punch the next person who describes Detroit as a "blank canvas."

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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