Bike Share Finds Success in Small Cities

While many of the United States’ largest cities have just started to adopt bike share, several of the country’s smaller cities have been at it for years.

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While many of the United States’ largest cities have just started to adopt bike share, several of the country’s smaller cities have been at it for years. These nimble cities were among America’s bike share pioneers, and they’ve proven that bike share can succeed with little more than community support, good leadership, and effective partnerships.

Take, for instance, Madison, WI. Its population is under 250,000 and has a modest density with just over 3,000 people per square mile (New York City has nearly ten times that density), yet it boasts a thriving B-cycle bike share program that launched in 2011. The program, which was initially funded through a donation by Trek, recovers about 60 percent of its revenue through its membership and user fees – 25 percent higher than the national average for transit systems – and receives the rest of its money through sponsorships and donations.

“We jumped from 470 members to over 2,000 between 2011 and 2012 – over a 300 percent increase in membership,” said Claire Hurley, the program’s manager. Hurley attributes the growth primarily to a partnership made with the University of Wisconsin – a partnership that has been integral to the program’s success.

Similarly, in Chattanooga, TN, the Chattanooga Bicycle Transit System (CBTS), operated by Alta Bicycle Share, has taken full advantage of its proximity to the University of Tennessee. According to Philip Pugliese, Chattanooga’s bicycle coordinator and project director for CBTS, “the University is host to five stations in and around the campus and others subsidized memberships to students.” Pugliese added that they have taken it a step further by partnering with the University to conduct bike and pedestrian related research and analysis in the area.

In Boulder, CO, which has a B-cycle system adjacent to another college community, operations manager Kevin Crouse pointed out that individuals usually have more clout in a smaller city. “An interested group of citizens first advocated for a modern bike-sharing system, forming a nonprofit organization to own and operate the system,” said Crouse. And, as a benefit of being small, Crouse said that they can “make decisions and implement them quickly, and we have the ability to interact very personally with our riders.”

But why have small cities taken to bike share? Well, largely because bike share is a low-cost solution for smaller cities to attract young talent and enhance their transportation network. In Chattanooga, Pugliese said that a “concerted effort was made to re-orient the community into one that was more environmentally friendly, sustainable, and attractive to both residents and future businesses.” And as Phoenix, AZ, prepares to welcome its bike share program later this year, Mayor Stanton said, “Bike-friendly cities are the ones that are going to advance in this new economy. If we want to attract and retain the right kind of jobs and entrepreneurs to our city, becoming more bikeable is critical.”

Being small certainly has its drawbacks when it comes to things like obtaining sponsorship and having a limited number of potential users, but it also has its advantages. Madison, Boulder, and Chattanooga were able to quickly harness community support, build strong ties with city officials and local institutions, and launch successful programs. Small is efficient; small is beautiful.

MADISON B-CYCLE

35 Stations

225 Bikes

240,323 City Population

CHATTANOOGA BICYCLE TRANSIT SYSTEM

32 Stations

300 Bikes

171,279 City Population

BOULDER B-CYCLE

22 Stations

150 Bikes

97,385 City Population


Matt Christensen is the managing editor of BikeShare.com. He holds a master’s degree in planning from the University of Southern California and believes that a bike can solve many of the world’s biggest problems.

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