Economic Development, Government, and Travel & Tourism

Bike-share study will cost $100K

Grand Rapids hopes program will alleviate parking crunch downtown.

March 3, 2017
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By a 4-3 vote, Grand Rapids city commissioners authorized $100,000 for a bike-share study.

Mobile GR and Parking Services will provide $70,000 for the study, and the Downtown Development Authority will contribute the remaining $30,000.

Chicago firm Sam Schwartz Engineering will conduct the study, which is expected to take five to seven months.

Conversations about bringing a bike-share program to Grand Rapids have been taking place for a handful of years now, as the city grapples with full parking structures.

Some people have suggested bike sharing could provide one piece of the solution to helping downtown workers, visitors and residents get around without a car.

In fact, as part of a previous study for Mobile GR & Parking Services, formerly Parking Services, Mark de la Vergne, of Sam Schwartz Engineering, suggested Grand Rapids should launch a 25- to 30-station bike-share program in 2017, which the firm suggested could help transition drivers to bicyclists.

That suggestion was included in Grand Rapids Downtown Inc.’s GR Forward Plan, adopted by city commissioners last year.

Kristin Bennett, transportation planning and program supervisor for Mobile GR & Parking, said the study that was just approved is intended to “advance the GR Forward recommendation with a detailed implementation plan, including the station planning, spacing and build-out phasing; public engagement; cost, revenue and ridership estimates; identification and assessment of potential community partners and sponsorship options; and a detailed business plan for financing, constructing, managing, operating and maintaining a bike-share system in Grand Rapids.”

Bennett said the previous recommendations were based on “concept-level analysis” and only covered downtown and near downtown neighborhoods.

“(They) did not include the level of detail and information needed to launch and operate a bike-share system,” she said.

The recommendation did attach a possible price tag, however.

In its recommendation, Sam Schwartz Engineering estimated a startup cost of $500,000 to $2 million.

The firm said startup costs could be covered by sponsorships, grants and other funding sources and, by the end of Year 2, predicted the program should be operating in the black or at least breaking even.

Bennett said full cost estimates will be part of the study.

She said the cost will depend on factors like the type of equipment and the level of density.

Bennett said while she could not predict how a bike-share program in Grand Rapids would be funded, most programs in other cities have relied on public-private partnerships.

Right now, bike-share systems, including the country’s two largest, are struggling to make a profit.

According to a 2014 article in The Guardian, New York’s Citi Bike, the largest bike-sharing system in the United States with about 6,000 bikes, has lost millions of dollars, and Washington D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare, which has about 1,800 bikes, was built with federal funds and requires subsidies to operate.

In Detroit, startup venture Zagster, which is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been trying to create a privately funded bike-share system for smaller communities that relies on businesses for operating support.

The bike share does not use the smart docks or kiosks the bigger systems rely on, which cuts down on costs by several thousand dollars, making the economics more feasible for private funding.

The downside of Zagster’s model is bike-share riders must be members of a company that is sponsoring the bike share.

It also was recently announced Shift Transit of Chicago will roll out a public bike-share program in Detroit in the spring, with 42 stations and 420 bicycles.

The system is expected to cost about $2 million to launch and about $1 million annually to operate. User fees and sponsorships are expected to cover the service costs going forward, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Therefore, it is very likely a bike-share system in Grand Rapids will require taxpayer dollars to operate successfully.

If a bike-share system is implemented in Grand Rapids, it will not be the first one.

In June 2015, The Spoke Folks, a nonprofit bicycle co-op, launched a four-month long bike-sharing pilot program with the support of a private, for-profit donor who provided startup funding.

The program was launched with 68 bikes and focused on downtown.

Jay Niewiek, executive director of The Spoke Folks, said not only was the pilot program testing the waters for bike sharing in Grand Rapids, it also was testing a newer model of bike sharing, one that uses an app-based system similar to how the Uber app works and does not include specific stations for picking up and dropping off bikes.

The typical bike-share model being used in the majority of cities around the country includes fixed bike stations and do not require a smartphone for use.

After four months, Niewiek said The Spoke Folks decided not to continue its bike-share program.

He said the decision was made in part because The Spoke Folks was aware of the city’s plans to conduct a feasibility study and likely start its own bike-share system.

Niewiek said his organization learned a lot from its pilot program, and he is encouraged by the study the city will be doing.

“$100,000 is a lot less than getting it wrong,” he said, noting with projections he has heard of $2.2 million to bring a system to Grand Rapids, the city should ensure it has all the information to create a sustainable system.

He also said one of the biggest flaws with some systems that have been implemented is a lack of equity across their communities, and he wants to see Grand Rapids get that equity piece right.

Niewiek also addressed criticisms he has heard levied at bike-sharing systems and other public transportation investments over the use of public funding.

“Bike sharing is something we need to view as a public commodity,” he said. “The same way we view our parks and streets. We know this new generation is going to demand that. They are going to make their decisions of where to live based on which cities are making investments in those public commodities.”

While Niewiek didn’t have data on who used The Spoke Folks system during the pilot program, he did say national data shows bike sharing attracts a wide variety of users, something echoed by Bennett.

Niewiek said while cyclists tend to be predominantly white males, bike-share riders are a much more varied group in terms of demographics.

It’s important to note other factors within bicycle infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes, also are a factor in who is willing to hop on a bike, according to a study published in the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation.

Niewiek believes a bike-share program can be sustained in Grand Rapids if it is implemented correctly.

“My biggest concern is to have the best model that is looking forward to what we can become,” he said.

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