Monday, August 22, 2011

Bike-share idea moves forward in Charlotte

Charlotte City government officials will discuss whether to push ahead with what's now a fledgling idea for the city to launch a bike-sharing program, preferably in time for the Democratic National Committee in September 2012.

The City Council's Transportation and Planning Committee this afternoon (Monday, Aug 22) heard a presentation from Alison Cohen, president of Alta Bicycle Share, which operates the Washington, D.C., bike share program, Capital Bikeshare, launched in September 2010. Also at the meeting was John Cock of the affiliated Alta wing, Alta Planning + Design.

Bike-share programs let customers pay (via memberships, or kiosks) to rent bicycles temporarily from a system of stations around the city. In Washington, yearly membership is $75, which buys you an electronic key you insert to free the bike from its locked slot at the station. Day-pass users ($5) get an unlocking code to use.  The first 30 minutes of a ride have no other fee bu the longer the ride, the more it costs. 

It's important to have places for bicycle riders to ride, Cohen said. Washington went from 3 to 50 miles of bike lanes in the last 10 years and saw bicycle commuting rise 86 percent, 2000-2009. The average distance of a Capital Bikeshare ride is 1.2 miles, Cohen said. (Charlotte is up to 50 miles of lanes, city bicycle coordinator Ken Tippette said.)

Today's meeting had no specific proposal on the table for council members; it was an information session arranged by Tippette with the encouragement of City Council member Edwin Peacock III, who chairs the council's Environment Committee and who described his experience using Capital Bikeshare when he was in Washington recently for a National League of Cities meeting.

Cohen said the D.C. bike share program is the nation's largest to date, although New York City plans to launch one in 2012 with 10,000 bikes. Other cities with programs: Denver, Minneapolis, Boston – even Spartanburg, S.C., which has only two bike share stations according to Cohen. Also in the works are programs in Chattanooga, Tenn., San Antonio and Miami. And yes, you read that right. Spartanburg.

Council members David Howard, Patsy Kinsey and Nancy Carter had questions for Cohen and Cock, but no one pooh-poohed the idea. At the end of the meeting, Howard, who chairs the committee, asked Assistant City Manager Jim Schumacher to talk with City Manager Curt Walton about what, if anything, the city should try to do.

Reading the tea leaves, as we pundits try to do, I predict the city will explore some sort of small-scale bike sharing program limited to center city and possibly one or two nearby neighborhoods, and will look for private sponsors to help with costs. A year is a short time frame for setting up a full program, but with enough push it could be done. After all, if you were in Charlotte in 1994 for the Final Four you saw center city enthusiasts create a fake nightlife scene, setting up bars inside vacant buildings. It worked. Doubters saw the huge crowds of people willing to come uptown for a night out, and it helped spark more authentic night life uptown. Setting up a real, if small, bike share program might have the same kind of inspirational effect.

The council committee also, with little discussion, unanimously recommended approval of the Center City 2020 Vision Plan, which goes to the full council Sept. 12  Here's a link to the draft of the plan, and here's a link to some commentary from my UNC Charlotte colleague David Walters and me. Also, here's a previous Naked City Blog item from me.

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