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Will Ann Arbor succeed with its bike sharing program?

Bike share programs are not a new concept – there are successful bike share programs in major cities all throughout the world. If you travel around North America, you'll find citywide bike share programs in Chicago, New York, Boston, Austin, Des Moines, Denver, Boulder, D.C., Madison (WI), Minneapolis/St. Paul, Philadelphia, Columbus, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Baltimore, the Bay Area, Toronto, and Montreal, among others.  

At the end of September the new ArborBike bike share program in downtown Ann Arbor debuted, becoming the first and currently only public bike share program in southeastern Michigan. 
Think about that for a second -- the only public bike share program in southeastern Michigan -- which isn't to say other communities aren't trying. Many are currently in active discussions and planning stages for bike share programs of their own, though implementing citywide bike share programs tends to be easier said than done. 

Detroit has been gaining a reputation as something of a cycling mecca thanks to events like the weeklySlow Roll Detroit and annual Tour de Troit that each draw in thousands of riders, as well as fast-growing cycling infrastructure (in the form of greenways and bike lanes), and big, beautiful, often barren boulevards that making cycling in Detroit, ironically, safer there than in other cities, though it does not yet have a public bike share program to call its own. 

Last year, a comprehensive study underwritten by several corporate and community partners in Detroit with an interest in showing the feasibility of a bike share program was conducted and, unsurprisingly, found that a bike share program is indeed feasible (though the study arguably overlooks some significant issues of implementation and financial sustainability). A private partnership between Rock Ventures and Zagster, a firm that specializes in implementing privately-run bike share programs for schools and businesses, has made a bike share program available exclusively to Rock Ventures/Quicken Loans employees. 

More recently, Zagster also partnered with General Motors to launch a bike share program for employees of their Warren Tech Center, making it the first bike share program in greater metro Detroit, though still not available to the public.

Elsewhere in Michigan, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Lansing, Traverse City and Mount Pleasant are all in various stages of consideration and extremely limited implementation, but none have a truly operational program. This arguably makes Treetown's new bike share program the first of its kind in the entire state of Michigan.

But despite the fact that so many Michigan communities are conducive to hosting such programs... the reality of running a successful operation is considerably more challenging.

But despite the fact that so many Michigan communities are conducive to hosting such programs,pleasing urbanists, environmentalists, outdoor recreationists and tourists alike, the reality of running a successful operation is considerably more challenging.

In January 2014, Montreal-based Bixi, which designed and implemented bike share systems in major cities throughout North America, Europe, and Australia including Chicago's Divvy Bikes, Boston's Hubway, and New York's Citi Bike, filed for bankruptcy. Unfortunately, a "successful" bike share program – ostensibly one that is frequently used by the public as an alternative method of transportation – is not necessarily a profitable one, and citywide bike share programs have historically been plagued bysubstantial revenue loss with a negative return on investment, not to mention cost-prohibitive issues with theft and vandalism. So simply wanting one and demonstrating feasibility isn't enough to ensure financial sustainability. And even those programs that have seemingly managed profitability are not without their criticisms

ArborBike, however, functions differently than bike share programs operated entirely by for-profit companies, and, if other municipalities are going to find long-term sustainability in the American market, its share program might just serve as a hybrid model for success.

ArborBike is a partnership between the University of Michigan (which is funding all operations for the first three years), the City of Ann Arbor, the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, and the Clean Energy Coalition. 

"A couple of years ago Mary Sue Coleman, the outgoing president of the University of Michigan, visited Boulder, saw their bike share program, and thought it would really benefit [her] students. In the meantime, the city of Ann Arbor was engaged in a study on bike sharing. Clean Energy was also looking at it, so we got involved as the nonprofit bringing all partners together and aligning their goals," explains Heather Seyfarth, Program Supervisor at Clean Energy Coalition. "Our mission is to get people to use clean energy, and bicycles are about the cleanest energy you can use. They also reduce the congestion in the downtown area, giving people an alternative way to get around downtown without getting into a vehicle. People can use the bike share to get to a bus stop or get to destination from a bus stop where the bus stop might have been too far to walk."  

"Our mission is to get people to use clean energy, and bicycles are about the cleanest energy you can use." - Heather Seyfarth

Envisioned as an extension of the public transit system, ArborBike has launched with six stations, all located in places that are considered population centers throughout downtown and on the U-M campus, including bus stations and other hubs. 

"We wanted them to be the appropriate distance from one another," says Seyfarth. "These are meant for short trips, more a transit system than a bike rental system. These are meant to get people from one destination to another and get integrated into the transit system." 

Additional stations will open downtown next spring, and long-term they would like to expand ArborBike beyond downtown. "We want to get the bike share into neighborhoods so people can really use it to get from home to their school and jobs. We really hope to build it out as robust transit system." 

Seyfarth feels that ArborBike has a strong chance for success given the student population of downtown Ann Arbor as well as the community's interest in cycling and the fact that the city already has quite a bit of cycling infrastructure already in place. Their definition of a successful program is seeing a rise in membership and ridership, which has been consistent in all bike share programs across the country. 

One of the bike sharing stations in Ann Arbor.
Credit Doug Coombe
One of the bike sharing stations in Ann Arbor.

The program has 75 bicycles, though only 44 are currently available. As it grows and expands, they hope to also make bike sharing more accessible to people with disabilities and are already working with PEAC, as well as open to offering the currently 18-and-over program to youth as well. 

For this first winter, ArborBike will take the bikes off the road and will reassess the program in the spring, though it is not unheard of for cities like Boston to leave the bikes out year-round (the real issue is snow management). All of the bikes are equipped with GPS systems so they can track people's travel patterns and develop growth maps based on where people are cycling the most.

ArborBike functions much like the bike share programs you would find in other cities: bikes are checked out with a credit card and are free for the first hour (an advantage over other cities, which typically only give users 30 minutes of free riding without docking) and $3 for every additional 30 minutes, with a $100 daily maximum. Memberships are available annually for $65, monthly for $9.99, and daily for $6.00. Some groups, like U-M students, receive discounts.

While there are certainly examples of unequivocally successful bike share programs in the United States – the B-cycle program in Madison, where the company began, now has 39 stations and 350 bikes available throughout the city – ArborBike is potentially part of the next evolution of bike sharing, a publicly invested venture (via the University Of Michigan) that serves as an extension of the public transportation system. 

*This story originally appeared in Concentrate Media. Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer extraordinaire. She is primarily known for her former blog, Eat It Detroit. 

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