Richmond moving forward with plans for bike-share program

The city of Richmond is getting the wheels turning on its plans for a bike-share program.

The city is considering a $1.34 million agreement to use mostly federal funding to deploy an initial wave of 300 bikes to 30 docking stations throughout the city. Pending City Council approval, the system is expected to be in place by the time the UCI Road World Championships come to town next September.

On Tuesday, a proposed funding agreement between the city and the Virginia Department of Transportation was presented to the council’s Land Use, Housing and Transportation Committee, which voted unanimously to forward it to the full council with a recommendation for approval.

Bike-sharing systems, which are being implemented in a growing number of cities worldwide, offer an alternative method of transportation by having bicycles available for pedestrians to check out and ride for a fee.

“This is one of the best ways to get people moving around the city by bike,” Max Hepp-Buchanan, Bike Walk RVA director at Sports Backers, said Tuesday as he urged the council committee to support the measure.

“It definitely removes some of the barriers to entry, and in some cases can help drive forward the need for infrastructure.”

Richmond has had a bike-share program in its plans for years, but the city is hoping to debut its system a few weeks before the international cycling event next September, when hundreds of thousands of bike enthusiasts are expected to visit the city.

Though the city has not finalized a fee structure, typical prices are around $75 for an annual membership, a one-day pass could cost around $6, and a three-day pass could cost about $15, said Jakob Helmboldt, the city’s bicycle, pedestrian and trail coordinator.

There would be no additional fees for trips of 30 minutes or less, but riders would be charged extra for longer trips, the goal being to encourage turnover and bike availability.

The docking stations would be located “throughout the densest residential and commercial areas of the city,” according to a city memo.

The setup phase is expected to cost $1.34 million, of which about 80 percent ($1.064 million) would be funded by the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program.

That money is allocated in coordination with VDOT and the Richmond Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. The remaining 20 percent ($280,000) would come from the city.

The initial price tag covers the cost of implementing the system and operating it for the first year. In the two subsequent years, revenue from user fees, memberships, sponsorships and advertising space would potentially cover the system’s costs.

If the program proves successful, the city is tentatively planning to expand the system by adding 15 more stations and 150 bikes in both fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017.

If the expansion takes place, the costs for those two years are projected at $1.06 million and $1.24 million, respectively.

If the system were not expanded in that period, the costs for the two subsequent years are projected at $439,600 and $487,200.

Officials are considering having a private-sector vendor run the program at the onset, which Helmboldt said could reduce the learning curve in getting the system working effectively.

The city is leaning toward New York-based startup Social Bicycles, which recently rolled out a bike-share program at the University of Virginia, according to Helmboldt.

Virginia Commonwealth University, which has given strong consideration to launching its own bike-share program, has also expressed interest in running the system, according to city officials.

Helmboldt said the city has not reached a specific agreement with VCU yet, but is hoping to collaborate with the university.

“It would make no sense to have two competing systems,” Helmboldt said.

Helmboldt said the city is planning to have a “fourth-generation” program, which he said would be more flexible and user-friendly because the electronic access systems travel with the bikes rather than staying fixed at the docking stations.

If a station were full and a rider had no place to return a bike, it could simply be attached to a nearby bike rack, he said.

Having more technology on the bike itself would also allow organizers to track the bikes and gather data about people who use them.

“We can see what streets people use, what areas they avoid,” Helmboldt said.

The funding agreement is scheduled to go to the full council next month. If the program moves forward as planned, he said, the council would have to take another vote next year approving a specific contract with a vendor.

Copyright Richmond Times-Dispatch. Used by Permission.