When people think of getting around Michigan, it’s safe to say that bicycles are not the first things that come to mind.
But bicycles, and specifically the urban bike-rental programs known as bike sharing, are starting to bubble into the conversation in cities across Michigan, from Detroit to Ann Arbor and Lansing – and even Traverse City, where a nonprofit has launched a modest program that runs through the winter.
They, like cities around the world that have embraced bike sharing, are looking for ways to attract millennials and other bicycle enthusiasts, promote tourism and healthy activities.
Bike sharing is just what it sounds like: people sharing rental bikes, which are set up at spots across a city for public use. Often, the systems are run by a city, in partnership with nonprofit organizations and sometimes with a corporate sponsor.
Bike-sharing systems exploded across U.S. cities in 2013, with programs in New York City, Chicago, Boston, Washington, Chattanooga, and on more than 30 college campuses. The nation’s bike-sharing fleet doubled in 2013, will double again this year, and is expected to be four times as big in 2015 as it was in 2012, according to the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental group.
The systems are even more popular in Europe and especially in China, where bike sharing is used by millions of people to get around the country’s burgeoning cities.
Michigan is pedaling fast to catch up, even though it still hasn’t seen a bike-sharing system along the lines of those in other cities.
Detroit explores program
The biggest bike-sharing question in the state is when a system will make its debut in Detroit. With tourists, hipsters, and a dedicated corps of urban cyclists, bike sharing seems like a natural part of the city’s revival.
A bike-sharing conversation has been underway for years in Detroit, led by Wayne State University. Organizers tapped Alta Planning + Design of Portland, Oregon, a bike system consulting firm, and livingLAB Detroit, an urban design studio, to conduct a feasibility study and come up with funding models.
Detroit bike-sharing proponents have focused on the city’s most active and stable neighborhoods, including Corktown, Downtown, Eastern Market, Lafayette Park, Mexicantown, Midtown, New Center, North End and Woodbridge. But the system could expand once it is up and running.
However, there’s no sign when that will happen and, given the long wait, Rock Ventures, which participated in the bigger Detroit study, decided to take matters into its own hands.
Last summer, Rock Ventures, the downtown company run by billionaire Dan Gilbert, partnered with Zagster, a bike-sharing company based in Cambridge, Mass., to launch a program for Gilbert’s employees.
One reason the Gilbert entities wanted to act, aside from the long wait for a formal program, was that the companies had 1,000 summer interns arriving, and no way to transport them around town, said RJ Wolney, director of business development at Rock Ventures.
Rock Ventures now operates properties from Eastern Market to Corktown. Wolney said bike sharing is more practical than providing shuttle buses or asking interns to move their cars from one parking lot to another during the day.
The Rock Ventures program set up racks in nine parts of downtown, and provided 60 bikes. Almost 2,000 people participated, with more than 6,500 rentals from July through November, said Rock Ventures spokeswoman Maura Campbell. Wolney said he hoped the success at Rock Ventures might prompt a citywide program, although he would not say if Rock Ventures would become its sponsor.
Ann Arbor to launch
The closest thing to a big-city bike-sharing program in the state is scheduled to launch this spring in Ann Arbor.
The as-yet-unnamed Ann Arbor system will be run by B-Cycle, the Waterloo, Wis.-based bike sharing company that is one of the two big players in the American market (the other being Montreal’s Alta Bike Sharing, which is behind Montreal’s Bixi and New York’s Citi Bikes).
Four major partners, including the city and the University of Michigan, have teamed up to launch the system, which will have an overall budget of $1.5 million.
The money includes $750,000 in capital funding, most of which is coming from a federal grant. U-M is providing $200,000 a year for three years for operating funds; the remaining money has to be raised through membership fees and sponsorships.
To begin, Ann Arbor’s system will focus primarily on downtown, the central U-M campus and North Campus. Residents suggested locations for the system’s 14 bike docks, and organizers spent weeks working with B-Cycle to determine which spots would work best.
The top priority was to put docks where the bikes would be used most frequently, then think about an expansion, said Heather Seyfarth, program manager for the Clean Energy Coalition, one of the system’s partners.
That means the bikes won’t initially be in outlying neighborhood, dashing some residents’ hopes that they could hop on a bike and ride to work. But Seyfarth says the group will be looking at where to go next. “We hope to make it a robust system so people can use it all over town,” she said.
The program will begin without an accompanying system for renting helmets, which is pretty much the norm for public bike sharing. However, Seyfarth said organizers have talked about arrangements with local merchants located near the bike docks, who might make a choice of helmets available for people who show a membership tag.
Lansing a blueprint
Absent private funding, or an aggressive effort to land federal funds, what can other Michigan cities do to introduce bike sharing? One possible model is up and running in Lansing.
In October, the area launched what is officially the state’s first municipally sponsored bike sharing system, Capital Community Bike Share.
With just $30,000 of its initial $40,000 budget in hand, the organizers couldn’t afford to emulate major city programs, said Eric Shertzing, director of the Ingham County Land Bank and organizer of the project.
Even down the road, the system doesn’t expect to have more than $150,000. “We’re doing this on little better than a shoestring,” Shertzing said.
So, the Lansing system made some significant changes. Rather than hire one of the established companies, Capital Community partnered with an Ann Arbor startup, A2B Bike Share.
Instead of using kiosks, where credit-card transactions take place and bikes are unlocked, Capital Community is using a “smart bike, dumb rack” approach. It loaded A2B’s technology onto each bike, making them the riding equivalent of an Android phone.
And rather than spread the bikes across town, the system focused on four locations close to Michigan Avenue for its launch.
Capital Community is also using lighter bikes than the bulky ones in New York and Chicago, which can cost $6,000 each. The streamlined model, essentially a mountain bike, costs $2,000.
Even that lower price has been a stretch for some of the system’s backers, Shertzing said, who question why the bike-sharing hardware costs so much more than a bike they might purchase for personal use. (The answer: Shared bikes are designed to be ridden more frequently than personal ones, by riders who might not always treat them gently)
“When you think about the potential for Michigan, you want to do things economically,” he said.
“The A2B Bike Share technology is half as much per bike to buy into as those kiosk systems that Chicago and Washington, DC have rolled out, but not as tested.”
The Lansing program has faced some hurdles. Capital Community attempted to launch last August, only to find out that A2B’s bike lock system didn’t work. It took two months to sort out the problem, with the bikes rolling for only about a month before winter weather arrived.
Down the road, Shertzing envisions a system stretching to the nearby cities of East Lansing and Mason. He sees it as a template for a broader, even statewide partnership.
“If you can get the price down to a couple thousand dollars a bike, and have a dependable system, some smaller community can piggyback on the contracts with the bike sharing that we make,” he said.
Shertzing has another vision: replacing his fleet with Michigan-made bikes, perhaps a version produced by Detroit Bikes, a fledgling bike manufacturer in the city, or Shinola, the trendy Detroit watchmaker that also makes bikes.
“I’m super excited at the idea that domestic manufacturing can work out,” Shertzing says. “There’s such a spirit in Michigan to hold onto that manufacturing. It would…be one of those game changers in how people would react to bike sharing, and how to move this along.”
Note: An earlier version of his story incorrectly stated the corporate home of B-Cycle.
Micheline Maynard is a journalist, author and educator based in Ann Arbor. She is a former Detroit bureau chief and senior business correspondent for The New York Times.