Carolyn Cary, a 55-year-old artist and cooking instructor, lives among the rolling pastures and pine forests of Carrollton, about an hour west of downtown. She’s not the first person you’d peg as an avid fan of bike-share programs that—until not long ago—primarily helped people scoot around dense urban areas such as New York City; Copenhagen; and, starting last year, Atlanta.
Yet on a balmy spring day, Cary suited up in workout attire and used her smartphone to check out a bicycle, like a library book, and then pedaled alongside college students on the 18-mile GreenBelt, Carrollton’s version of the Atlanta BeltLine that began construction in 2011. Her regular rides on the GreenBelt—past creeks and farmland, around Target and Publix, and through the University of West Georgia’s campus—have provided Cary with a new perspective on her city, not to mention fitness benefits. (She says each ride is like a cheaper, more bucolic spin class.)
The February debut of Carrollton’s 50-bike fleet was one of the strongest launches that Zagster, the system’s Massachusetts-based provider, had ever seen. Nationwide, only Kennesaw’s bike-share program had more rides per bike straight out of the gate. As of March, 2,200 people—nearly 10 percent of Carrollton’s population—had signed up. Zagster, which runs a large number of the nation’s bike-share programs, has cornered the suburban market here, with systems in Smyrna (the first bike share to launch in the metro area in 2015), Alpharetta, Carrollton, Roswell, Suwanee, Woodstock, and around the Town Center area in Kennesaw, in addition to a private bike share serving the Perimeter Summit office tower.
However ironic, car-friendly communities long fueled by Atlanta’s sprawl are becoming hotspots for city-centric bike shares. In just two years, the ’burbs went from hosting zero bikes to 193, spread across seven programs. The growth proves that bike share is “a legitimate form of transportation—it’s not a toy,” says Joe Seconder, president of Georgia Bikes, a statewide bicycle advocacy organization.
Bike sharing by the numbers
Number of metro Atlanta cities with bike-share programs
Number of people who signed up for Carrollton’s bike share
Number of two-wheelers available at kiosks in Atlanta and its suburbs
Globally, about 1,000 cities offer bike share, and popularity is exploding in the U.S., where the 28 million trips taken in 2016 represented a 25 percent jump over the previous year. The five largest city systems—New York, D.C., Miami, Chicago, and Boston—chalked the vast majority of rides last year, but more than 55 systems have now popped up across the country. Atlanta’s nascent Relay bike share, operated by CycleHop, now boasts 500 two-wheelers.
Even in small towns, bike share is an extension of the same “sharing economy” mindset that’s given rise to Uber, and proponents say it’s further evidence that Americans—especially millennials—want to live in places where vehicles aren’t always necessary. “We’ve spoken with a number of smaller cities seeing a population decline, and they realize they’re just not retaining young people anymore,” says Jon Terbush, a Zagster communications manager. Rolling out bike share “is about playing a proactive game.”
Zagster’s spread in suburban Atlanta owes much to its relatively low cost. The company leases its own bikes and stations to cities—keeping costs around $135 per bike, per month—and contracts with local bike shops to keep the chains greased and tires patched.
Corporations, nonprofits, and universities often front early program costs for a period of time, as was the case in Carrollton. Riders check out bikes, which are outfitted with locking mechanisms and can be latched to any rack, via apps—or via text message for riders without smartphones—that track how long they are gone from stations.
Each city typically collects the rider fees; annual memberships in Carrollton are $25, and hourly rates are $3 for nonmembers, though costs vary elsewhere. Carrollton officials say their city essentially launched its bike share at no cost to taxpayers, and all proceeds will go toward renewing Zagster leases before they expire in two years. Erica Studdard, Carrollton’s community development director, says the only complaint she’s heard is that finding an available bike on weekends is difficult.
Each city in Georgia using Zagster has placed bike stations alongside existing trail networks or in-street bike lanes, as in Alpharetta. But Terbush says some suburbs also use bike share to push a redevelopment of roadways and help potential riders overcome their fears of cycling on streets.
Kennesaw’s 20-bike fleet, launched by the Town Center Community Improvement District in 2015 with three stations along the Noonday Creek Trail, has three times more riders per bike than any of Zagster’s nearly 150 programs, says Tracy Rathbone, the CID executive director. That popularity has motivated officials to move forward with a seven-mile loop trail that will connect Kennesaw State University with other parts of the district.
Rathbone hopes that what she calls primarily a “recreational opportunity” could one day become a daily mode of transportation. If it does, the program could start to resemble Atlanta’s bike-share program, which puts an emphasis on connecting with MARTA and offers access to people living on food stamps or without credit cards.
Studdard foresees a day when the GreenBelt users can pedal to Carrollton’s historic downtown, more streets are narrowed to accommodate bike lanes, and locals from middle school students to factory workers use the system for daily commutes. The city’s bike share has attracted riders across demographics, Studdard says, though it’s mainly been a source of fun or exercise—not real transportation—thus far.
Still, it has helped Thomas Dukes, a 24-year-old machine operator, shed 20 pounds by cycling along the GreenBelt. His next goal is to pedal the whole 18-mile loop. “I’ve always wanted to get a new bike but never could afford it,” he says. “I think it’s pretty cool that I don’t have to go to Atlanta to do something like this.”
Take a ride
Civil Bikes leads tours of sites that featured prominently in local history and the civil rights movement. Bicycle Tours of Atlanta offers history-themed trips that are tourist-and local-friendly. —Thomas Wheatley
This article originally appeared in our July 2017 issue.