Bikeshares have become popular in cities such as Chicago, New York City, Chattanooga and Washington, D.C. Montevallo implemented its own bikeshare program, Vallocycle, in 2011. With the help of the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham (RPCGB) and its CommuteSmart initiative, the Magic City could be next on the list to get a bikeshare program.
Originally started in France in the 1970s, bikeshare programs have been successful in European nations, China and other countries for decades. Over the years, bikesharing has evolved from releasing bikes onto the streets for unrestricted use to the organized system it is today. Although there are slight changes from program to program, bikeshares operate in generally the same fashion: there are bikeshare hubs, which house bikes, every couple of hundred yards in arts and entertainment districts. To rent a bike, riders provide a method of payment or swipe a membership card at the bikeshare hub kiosk, choose a bike and take off. Ideally, the patron returns the bike later the same day.
“The Birmingham Bikeshare conversation started about two-and-a-half years ago,” said Lindsey West, deputy director of operations at the RPCGB. “But we think Birmingham is ready for this now. We know bike infrastructure is a big question, especially since there are only two bike lanes in Birmingham, because drivers here just aren’t used to seeing people riding bikes.”
“We are excited to be exploring the feasibility of bikeshare for Birmingham,” said Executive Director Charles Ball of the planning commission. “These programs have motivated other communities to improve bike infrastructure and have introduced new audiences to cycling.”
To determine if Birmingham is conducive to a bikeshare program — and, if so, where the bikeshare hubs should be — the regional planning commission is doing a feasibility study. The study will help identify challenges that might arise in implementing a bikeshare program downtown.
The RPCGB put together a bikeshare task force consisting of individuals representing public, private and nonprofit groups. The task force chose Toole Design Group, the nation’s leading engineering, planning and landscape architecture firm specializing in multimodal transportation – and a supporter of bikeshare efforts around the country — to conduct the feasibility study. If Birmingham is deemed a good place for a program, the RPCGB will move forward with Birmingham Bikeshare’s implementation.
The feasibility study will identify areas where specific bikeshare hubs should be placed. Because most bikeshare hubs are solar-powered, the hubs must receive adequate sunlight, but not so much that the sun is beating down on the station. It’s important to place the hubs closely together — no more than a couple of hundred yards apart — so bikes can be easily re-distributed and patrons won’t have to go very far out of their way to return the bikes. Because patrons are charged by the hour, bikeshares discourage longer trips, thus ensuring the bikes are returned to the hubs promptly for other riders’ use.
“The idea is to get people from one hot spot to another. It’s great for sightseeing, tourists, meeting friends for lunch, running errands or other short trips,” West said. “Bikeshares are good for economic development, encouraging a healthy lifestyle and providing alternative transportation options.”
Representatives from the RPCGB traveled to Chattanooga to experience their bikeshare program firsthand. They heard the challenges Chattanooga faced in implementing their program and the pros and cons of letting people share bicycles.
“We’re looking at Chattanooga specifically as a guide for how we want to model Birmingham’s bikeshare because it’s a medium-sized city in the Southeast, and they had the first bikeshare program in the Southeast,” West explained. “They’re mentoring us, as well as Arlington bikeshare, a part of Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Bikeshare.”
Based on local input through the RPCGB’s Facebook page, the biggest concern identified so far is that people aren’t sure if they would be safe biking downtown and sharing the road with drivers. The RPCGB’s bikeshare experience in Chattanooga laid some of those concerns to rest, however.
“We rode a mile-and-a-half on one of Chattanooga’s busiest streets and felt safe, even without helmets,” said Scott Tillman, director of planning and operations at the RPCGB. “There’s been a change in their bike culture now that they’re used to seeing cyclists. Chattanooga has more traffic than Birmingham, so we want to show people that it’s safer than they think.”
Chattanooga’s bikeshare program took $1.3 million to start, so the RPCGB is exploring funding sources. In some cities, corporations fund bikeshare ventures for advertising purposes — there is ad space on each bike in addition to the ad space at each hub’s check out kiosk. If a single company funds the bikeshare program outright, that company has a monopoly on advertising at bikeshare hubs and can sell or rent that ad space to other companies to regain some of their initial investment. While the RPCGB has not approached any companies for sponsorship yet, they have learned from researching other cities’ bikeshares that it’s necessary for the program to be a public-private partnership to be sustainable.
With increased interest in bikeshare programs in other cities and recent developments in Birmingham, a downtown bikeshare is timely, promoters say. “There’s momentum now and people are drawn to downtown. Now that they’re here, they need a way to get around,” Tillman said.
Although bikeshare programs promise economic growth, it’s difficult to calculate the exact numbers. Bikeshare patrons will save on gas. Potential restaurant patrons might have easier access if he or she didn’t have to fight for a parking spot, but these numbers are not easily tallied.
Some have posed concerns about theft or vandalism of the bikes, but other cities have found such crimes to be rare. Because the bikes are so distinguishable, they are easy to identify. Bikeshare bikes typically have a low cut-out frame to allow women in dresses or skirts to ride comfortably, a rope bike lock to secure the bike at any stops that don’t include a bikeshare hub and between one and seven speeds, depending on the hilliness of the city’s landscape. Most cities’ bikeshares also include an app where patrons can check the availability of bikes at nearby hubs and plan bike trips between hubs.
As for helmets, Alabama state law only requires children under 16 to wear helmets on bicycles, so patrons who wish to use a helmet will have to provide their own. Alternately, organizers might work out a partnership with local bicycle shops to sell the helmets since they will not be provided at the hubs.
Birmingham’s feasibility study is ongoing, so the information is not available yet. But the RPCGB has ideas about how the bikeshare program will begin. “Areas around Railroad Park and Regions Field will likely be the starting point,” West said.
Along with the feasibility study, the RPCGB is asking for public input. By going to the Birmingham Bikeshare website, interested people can suggest locations for bikeshare hubs and take a survey on how much their household might use the shared bike service.
The RPCGB will be present at Design Week Birmingham’s Fit Nation event with one of Chattanooga’s bikeshare program bikes. Bikeshare proponents hope visitors will look at the bike, give it a spin and ask questions. The Fit Nation event will take place on Monday, October 28 from 4 to 5 p.m. at the Alagasco Center for Energy Technology, located at 20 20th Street South. Additionally, there will be an open house for the public on November 13 at 5:30 p.m. at the AIA Birmingham Design Center at 109 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd. S.