Bike Share can Help you Build a Strong Town

James Llamas is a Strong Towns member who serves on the board of Houston's nonprofit bike share program, B-cycle. Today, he's sharing his thoughts on why bike share is a worthwhile venture for towns wishing to grow stronger.

The bicycle revolutionized human transportation, but innovations in bicycling were remarkably few in the century after the safety bicycle was introduced in the 1880s. New styles and materials were developed, but the basic design of the common bicycle remained virtually unchanged.

Then, about ten years ago, the bicycle and cellular data technology met in France and fell in love. Bike share was born, changing the way people get around in cities forever.

Well, “forever” remains to be seen, but there is no question that the rise of bike share has been dramatic and shows no signs of slowing. The number of bile share bikes in the world first reached 1,000 with the launch of the Vélo’v system in Lyon, France in 2005. By 2015, over 1 million bikes were in circulation on 900 systems worldwide, the majority in China. It’s hard to think of a large city in North America that doesn’t have a bike share system in operation or planning, and numerous midsize and small cities are implementing systems, as well.

Bike share, put simply, consists of a fleet of publicly accessible bikes that can be used for one-way trips within a designated area. Typically, this is enabled through a membership system where the user’s payment information is kept on file as insurance against damaged or stolen bikes. A member walks up to a bike and uses a card, fob, or code to electronically unlock it. He or she rides to his or her destination, drops off the bike by locking or docking it, and walks away. Most large systems allow a casual user to purchase a short-term membership or single trip from an electronic kiosk at a docking station.

Large city bike share systems predominantly use telecom-equipped docking stations (known as “smart dock” systems) while many small-city and campus applications put the technology on the bike (“smart bike” systems). The primary advantage of smart bike systems is that the bikes can be dropped off just about anywhere, not just at stations, by securing them with the on-board lock. This obviates the need for expensive station infrastructure, but can present a challenge for the operator who has to redistribute (“rebalance” in industry parlance) bikes among many more locations.

Is bike share something an aspiring Strong Town should consider? My observations and experiences on the board of Houston’s nonprofit bike share organization have led me to believe that it certainly is.

More people making more bike trips has helped build support and urgency for the types of design changes to Houston’s streets that will slow the cars and make them more productive platforms for building the community’s wealth.

The many benefits of bicycling – financial, social, and more – have been well covered at Strong Towns. Bike share can extend those benefits to more people by allowing those who might not have the time, skills, space, or inclination to own and maintain their own bike to enjoy them as well. Bike share can even allow bicycle owners to make more of their trips by bike.

If I relied solely on my own bike, then deciding to ride the bus to work on a given day would preclude biking to meetings or back home. With bike share available, bicycling becomes an option for many more trips, even if I’ve left my bike at home. More people making more bike trips has helped build support and urgency for the types of design changes to Houston’s streets that will slow the cars and make them more productive platforms for building the community’s wealth.

Strong Towns grow incrementally over time, making many small bets and learning from the results. That’s exactly how most bike share systems grow, as well. In Houston, bike share started in 2011 with just three stations to introduce the concept and test the technology. Since then, public and private grants and contributions from business districts, universities, and developers have allowed us to expand to over 30 stations, with plans to top 100 in 2017.

Some stations have been more successful at generating ridership than others, so we’ve learned and adjusted as we’ve gone along. When one station in the busy Midtown area was underperforming, we sought out an opportunity to move it from its original location next to a fabric store (not a huge ridership driver) to a new one in front of an apartment building. Compared to many other types of infrastructure, bike share equipment is relatively mobile, allowing some trial and error as we tailor the network to best serve the city.

One challenge bike share systems face in reaching everyone who could benefit from easy, affordable bicycling is that the charge card-based payment system can be a barrier for people with lower incomes who may be unbanked. Indego in Philadelphia is one of the systems leading the way in addressing that gap in bike share ridership by offering a cash payment option.

In Houston, a private grant allowed us to install a station outside a public housing development and offer reduced-price memberships to residents. That station shows a strong pattern of trips to and from two others along the Main Street light rail line about a mile away, illustrating the ability of bike share to extend the reach of transit and maximize the return on our investments in rail and the new bus network. More cities are thinking of bike share as a form of transit, and some systems are actually being implemented and operated by transit agencies.

As it turns out, bike share is an extremely cost-effective form of transit. In Houston, our operating costs have been fully covered by system revenue and advertising sponsorships. Some systems are making a go of it with no public funding whatsoever. The public image of bike share is very positive, which generates great interest among sponsors looking to connect with audiences in urban areas.

Bike share is still a very young industry, and it’s been exciting to watch systems across the country try new things and learn from each other. The bike share community is a lot like Strong Towns with a broad group of dedicated people who are trying to figure out what works and are always excited to share their experiences.

Bike share is helping make Houston a stronger town. Maybe it could do the same for yours!

If you're interested, here's a database of existing bikeshare programs around the country.

(All photos from TEI)

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About the author

James Llamas is a Senior Associate at Traffic Engineers, Inc. (TEI) in Houston where he works primarily on the firm’s transit, street, sidewalk, and bike planning and engineering projects. He graduated from Rice University with a B.S. and a Master of Civil Engineering. At TEI, he has played a critical role in the development of the Houston METRO Transit System Reimagining project, a blank-sheet redesign of the region’s bus network. James also serves on the board of directors of Houston Bike Share. Since moving to Houston in 2008 James chooses to rely on walking, biking, and transit for his daily transportation rather than a personal vehicle. His passion for creating great streets and liberating transit is energized by his daily experiences moving around Houston.