Wednesday, April 16, 2014 1:00 AM
Economic Review -- What do Fort Worth, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City have in common?
Bikes, and lots of them. These cities, among others, launched organized bike share programs in 2013, joining another 40 metropolitan areas with similar programs already in place. Now, going into its second season, and after about four years of development, Salt Lake City's GREENbike program has been wildly successful.
"Based upon our comparisons of cities with similar population densities and climates, we have one of the most successful bike share programs in the country," says GREENbike Director Ben Bolte, who runs the non-profit program. Bolte joined the Alliance and the Salt Lake Chamber in July 2011 as the Salt Lake City Bike Share project manager. His role was to help create, implement and manage the solar powered, fully automated bicycle-sharing network for downtown Salt Lake City. And whether it's designing the program's non-profit model, conducting fundraising presentations or just updating the bike share Facebook page, he is the point person for all things bike share.
Flat topography certainly helps make bike sharing a viable transportation option in the city. "Until you hit about 1100 East, the city is fairly flat," he notes. "You can get from point A to point B without getting really sweaty or having to bring a change of clothes, which is a primary deterrent for people considering riding a bike for transportation."
Bolte has been gathering metrics since the program's launch, and he cites them in rapid-fire fashion. The 2013 season, which ran from April to December, saw 6,100 people ride 65 bikes 26,000 times. That's about 400 trips per bike. Season two of GREENbike began last week and already riders have made more than 700 trips. One third of the GREENbike riders live within Salt Lake County. Another third are spread out along the Wasatch Front. The other third are tourists. Eight percent of the annual members are older than 45, while 7 percent are under 25 years old. Forty percent of the riders are women, which Bolte says, is nearly twice the number of women that are bicycle commuters.
"About 23 percent of your average bicycle commuters are women," he continues. "Whereas, with GREENbike nearly half of the riders are women, so our program is putting more women on bicycles." For a quarter of last year's riders, hoping on a GREENbike was the first time they had ridden a bicycle for transportation rather than recreation. But GREENbike is about more than just transportation. Bolte says it is the gateway to a more active lifestyle, alternate transportation connectivity and better air quality.
Less than five percent of the population uses bicycles as their primary mode of transportation, and it is difficult to expect people to give up their cars for the entire day, he concedes. But with the bike share program, residents can drive into downtown or ride mass transit, and then use a GREENbike. The program allows riders to make fewer car trips, which reduces the number of cold car starts (the primary culprit of tailpipe air pollution). For a growing number of residents, riding a GREENbike to lunch or a meeting is more preferable than starting up a car and contributing to the Wasatch Front's air quality problem. "When you are only going five blocks, a mile or even two miles, take a bike instead," says Bolte.
GREENbike riders are conscientious about air quality. They're also interested in the health benefits of the program. According to Bolte, 52 percent of riders say they are getting more exercise as a result of the GREENbike program, not just because they use GREENbikes during the day, but because they go home feeling more energized so they go to the gym, go for a hike or take a walk. "Using GREENbike gives them some activity during the day and breaks up the lethargy," he adds.
Annual members even have access to an online user-profile that logs how many calories they burned, how far they rode and how much they've helped improve the Wasatch Front's air quality. And with 12 bike share stations conveniently located throughout downtown, access is easier than ever. "We try to make the bikes accessible for everyone. That's why the bikes are designed the way they are, with chain guards, skirt guards, step-through frames and automatic front and back LED lights," Bolte continues. "When you combine that with the protective bike lanes the city is installing later this year, we expect even greater bike share participation."
Before rolling out the bike share program, Bolte and his team studied programs in other cities, including Boulder and Denver, trying to determine the most effective model for Salt Lake City. His goal was to create an environment that would foster a successful program in the capital city. One of the questions was whether Salt Lake City's bike share program should be run as a non-profit organization, a for-profit business or a public-private partnership. Miami Beach, he says, has the only successful for-profit bike share program in the country, and it is dedicated entirely to tourists.
"A for-profit bike share program wouldn't work in Salt Lake City because we don't have the population density and our weather conditions make it difficult to operate the program year-round," he says. "What we came up with was a non-profit, public-private model and that has proven successful. We are able to reach a myriad of different groups to enjoy the program, from tourists and people who live or work downtown to visitors from other areas along the Wasatch Front."
Bolte says the bike share program was built in a way to make TRAX, FrontRunner and other transportation options more convenient. Program sponsors like Select Health, Rio Tinto, Fidelity Investments, Rocky Mountain Power, Backcountry.com, Harmons, KeyBank, Squatters Pubs, Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, Larry Miller Tour of Utah, AT&T and Intermountain LDS Hospital cover 70 percent of the operational expenses. The remainder of costs are covered through annual membership fees and usage fees.
With a low cost of living, a progressive metropolitan center, convenient mass transit options and a successful bike share program, Bolte says Utah's growing population is finding Salt Lake City a great place to live, work and play.