Could a Bike Sharing Program Work in Detroit? Prominent Backers Aim to Find Out

A group of prominent employers and nonprofits is laying the groundwork to launch a bike sharing service in Detroit as part of broader efforts to expand the city’s limited transportation options.

Bike sharing programs have typically been associated with cities in Europe, but they have taken off in recent years in Minneapolis, Denver and Washington, D.C. Programs are set to launch this year in New York City and Houston, while Chicago, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. are also planning their own versions.

The Detroit proposal is in the early stages and doesn’t yet have a name, but has “popped up organically” from groups and companies like Midtown Detroit Inc., Quicken Loans, the Detroit-Wayne Joint Building Authority, the Downtown Detroit Partnership and the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, said Lisa Nuszkowski, senior project administrator in economic development for Wayne State University, which is acting as ringleader. Early meetings to line up support have attracted representatives from Henry Ford Health System, Detroit Medical Center, Compuware, Eastern Market, TechTown and NextEnergy.

The proposal would establish bike sharing stations in downtown and Midtown, and possibly in Eastern Market and the Corktown neighborhood.

“Our ideal situation, and you never get your ideal, is spring 2013,” Ned Staebler, Wayne State’s vice president for economic development, said of a launch date.

“We’re committed to giving this a shot, and it’s a priority.”

‘Last Mile’ Option

Like other urban bike sharing programs, the proposed program would allow users to rent a bicycle for point-to-point “last-mile” use between rental kiosks, where they are locked. Since customers would check out the bikes using their credit or debit card, there is strong disincentive to leave them unattended and at risk for theft. Programs typically are financed with a combination of federal grants and corporate sponsorships.

Supporters envision a user base made up of out-of-town visitors, college students, residents who don’t have their own bicycle, and people who work in the city but don’t want to have to worry about parking their car for after-hours events or offsite meetings.

“We like to think of it as Zipcar for bikes, so it’s somebody who isn’t going to use it as a primary means of transit into the area,” Staebler said.

“It’s a lot cheaper than a cab, and you get to see a lot more of the city than you would from the back of a car.”

The program is tied partly to efforts to build the M-1 Rail, the privately backed light rail or streetcar line proposed to run along Woodward Avenue from downtown to the New Center. The DDP has worked with Midtown Detroit and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. for months on transit-oriented development plans around M-1 to expand mobility options, said Robert Gregory, the DDP’s senior vice president.

“Most other major cities now in the United States and certainly in Europe have bike sharing operations. We’re way behind on that,” Gregory said. “This is a needed operation for greater downtown and it will complement walking, buses and a light rail system and enhance mobility options.”

Financial Push

Smaller groups are also working to bring bike sharing programs to the city, but none with the potential financial or political clout of the group being convened by Wayne State officials.

In addition to holding more meetings with potential backers and residents, Staebler said efforts are under way to line up funding to conduct a feasibility study estimated to cost between $40,000 and $50,000. About half that amount is already committed, he said.

Staebler and Nuszkowski say they plan to engage consultants, and they acknowledge a need for marketing the service to a city known for its love of the automobile, even as bike culture swells and “complete streets” laws are reshaping many city streets to be more bike-friendly.

“It’s educating people but it’s also having them think about the various ways they’re getting around the city,” Nuszkowski said. “It’s a culture change, quite frankly, and it’s something that’s going to take some time.”

Here’s a video of how one bike sharing program works:

Do you think bike sharing can work in the Motor City?

Photo by nycstreets



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