It’s Time to Bring Bike Sharing to St. Louis

Whenever people talk about cycling, we often think about the casual rides with our family on the weekend or the occasional bike ride to a local park. For some, cycling has become their main means of transportation while for most it’s still the automobile.

During a recent visit to Minneapolis-St. Paul, I got to see bike stations all across the city with identical bikes at each station. It was the Twin Cities new public bike sharing network called Nice Ride. Nice Ride, and Washington D.C’s Capital Bikeshare are two of the first public bike sharing systems in the United States.

These new bike sharing systems allow both citizens and tourists to rent bicycles from a station and go wherever they need to go and return it to another station around the city for a small registration fee and nominal usage charge. As I learn more about these systems, and bike sharing in Europe where it is more popular, it becomes obvious that St. Louis needs a public bike sharing network.

So what is a public bike sharing network? It’s often run by a public transportation authority that plans, constructs, and operates bike rental stations across a city. The bike rental stations typically have at least four bikes that are available to members who pay a small annual fee and a small fee each time they use a bike.

In most public bike sharing networks, the first 30 minutes is free to use, then the usage fees increase gradually the longer the bike is in your possession. This reinforces the idea that the system is made for short journeys and that the bikes are returned in time to allow a large number of people to use the system. Check out London’s new bike sharing effort:

One of the first and most noteworthy bike sharing system is Velib in Paris. A combination of the word “velo” meaning bicycle and “liberté” meaning freedom, the service has proven wildly popular. Recently, I talked to a friend living in Paris and asked about Velib’. He told me that he views the bike share program a great achievement of the city of Paris and he said that it is hard to ever find bikes because it is so popular.

His opinion echoes StreetFilms, where it was noted the Velib system of 20,000 bicycles and 1,451 docking stations, which are never more than 1,000 feet apart, generated 25 million new bicycle trips in its first year. Ten percent substituted for former car trips.

This popularity, achievement, and success of Velib’ needs to be built in St. Louis. While Paris is much larger than St. Louis, the Velib’ system was inspired by Lyon, a city much smaller than St. Louis. The success of Velib’ has been unyielding, as cities such as London, Montreal, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, Des Moines, Chicago, Louisville, San Antonio, and Washington D.C. have begun to experiment with bike share systems.

In St. Louis, we have wonderful organizations like Bike St. Louis, Trailnet, and Great Rivers Greenway working to enhance both the pedestrian and cycling experience, but their achievements in the developments of trails and bike lanes are not being used to their full capacity. Sure we have the bike lanes and trails, but if they are underutilized, many will see further expenditure on similar infrastructure as unnecessary.

No driver can share the lane with a cyclist if there is no one to share it with. To engage this problem we need to create an enabler, an enabler that will shift the transport dynamic in the region to better reflect a multi-modal society in which people have options. To do this, we must begin with a large enough system to generate demand.

Public Bike System, a Candian company that developed the “Bixi System” is the platform many public bike sharing systems are using. Paris, London, Montreal, and now Minneapolis-St. Paul all use the “Bixi System” which includes everything from the bike stations to the bikes themselves. The beauty of the “Bixi System” is that it is extremely easy to set up and operate in little time.

The module system consists of platforms that accommodate four bike docks and a pay station. They are portable and energy self-sufficient, requiring no added infrastructure, no excavation, no digging, no pouring of concrete. One station, holding four docks is the size of one parking spot.

This would allow St. Louis to develop a public bike system that can reflect the needs of the community. Small bike rental stations would be located in neighborhoods while larger bike stations would be built along main commercial districts and civic institutions, like the Delmar Loop, Washington Avenue, the Arch, and St. Louis Zoo. Because the system is flexible, stations could be move or added when large conventions come to town. This would improve the experience of attendees and leave them with the impression that St. Louis is a modern, contemporary city that is rapidly changing.

Another concern many people have from these systems is the cost. There is a substantial upfront cost to establish such a system. However, it would be a very small fraction of what the region spends on roads, parking and even public transit. Registration and usage fees also help fund the system. Corporate sponsors for these systems are starting to become popular, with London’s system being sponsored by Barclays, a banking firm and the Twin Cities’ system being sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota.

While these systems are fully sponsored, meaning that the logos of Barclays and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota are on every bike and station across the city, Denver’s new system has employed the idea that business can sponsor a station near their business with other benefits included.

And what if the system doesn’t run a profit or is self-sustaining? When was the last time you heard someone ask if the $500M+ I-64/Highway 40 project is generating a profit? More trips by bike equal less demand for parking and traditional road infrastructure. More trips by bike equal more exercise, better health and less pollution.

A bike sharing system could be built soon and benefit all of us, both cyclists and drivers. It’s likely that the next Metrolink line won’t be open for years and then stations will be fixed for decades, directly serving only specific neighborhoods. Bikes can serve as the link from homes to transit, or from transit to attractions. Bicycles can fill the gap left by Metrolink and MetroBus service and enhance the usability of the existing system at the same time. If you build a public bike sharing system in Saint Louis, people will not only come, but they will ride, and create a better more vibrant St. Louis.