Six lessons Atlanta can learn from New York’s bikeshare woes

The benefit of being a late adopter is learning from others’ mistakes

Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that Citi Bike, New York City’s fledgling bikeshare program, faced a funding shortfall in the tens of millions with no clear lifeline. [See footnote for an update to this information.] The news was disconcerting to Atlanta biking advocates. Atlanta is slated to launch its own bikeshare program in 2015, and like New York’s, it will be entirely self-funded. Most other cities partially subsidize their bike rental programs with local or federal dollars.

The similarities don’t extend much further; Atlanta’s population density and transportation grid resemble New York about as much as a child’s finger painting resembles intricate Chinese scrollwork. Not to mention Cycle Hop, the company the City of Atlanta selected to operate our bikeshare, utilizes a markedly different technology from that of Citi Bike. Still, there are takeaways.

1. Make sure the equipment works. File this under obvious but important. Rampant software glitches and faulty “docking stations” (rental kiosks) marred the launch of Citi Bike and frustrated many riders eager to embrace the system. One Yelper likened the task of finding and returning a bike to a game of musical chairs.

The good news for Atlanta is that Cycle Hop has partnered with a company called Social Bicycles to provide a more nimble technology. The booking and tracking device is fitted to the bike itself, rather than to a docking station. “If [a Citi Bike] kiosk isn’t working, that entire station goes down and you can’t actually return the bike,” says Ryan Rzepecki, CEO of Social Bicycles and a New York resident. “With our system, we don’t have a single point of failure. Even if, say, the electronics weren’t to work, the lock is mechanical and the bike can still be secured.”

2. Implement a sustainable pricing model. Despite the glitches, Citi Bike has proven popular with locals, selling 100,000 annual memberships at $95 a piece in less than a year. But short-term passes, which range in price from $9.95 for 24 hours to $25 for 7 days, are the real moneymakers, as the Journal noted—and sales took a plunge during the long, frigid winter. (New York is now weighing a price increase for annual passes.) Atlanta’s got milder winters, but we’ve also got sweltering summers and that rolling Piedmont terrain.

Josh Mello, a former transportation planner with the City of Atlanta who helped orchestrate many of the bike projects now under way in town, says Atlanta’s biggest challenge is “without a doubt” the heat and hills. But he says bikeshare is about giving people choices. “Would I hop on a bike at 3 p.m. in the middle of August to ride up the gigantic hill on North Avenue from Ponce City Market to Boulevard? Probably not. I would likely just jump on the No. 2 bus. But on the way back, I may decide to coast down the hill on a bike with the wind in my face. I would certainly use a bikeshare bike to travel along the Atlanta BeltLine from Ponce City Market to Parish for lunch. It’s flat, pretty shady, and faster than driving.” Mello, who left Atlanta for Sacramento in January, currently works for the sister company of Alta Bicycle Share, which operates Citi Bike, and deferred to them on the situation in New York. (Read Alta’s official statement here.)

3. Diversify the sponsorship model. A word of caution to those envisioning snazzy red CokeCycles: Citi Bike’s close association with title sponsor CitiBank has proven an anathema to other potential sponsors. Fast Company summed up the quandary in a piece titled “When Branding Is Too Good.”

Says Mello, “I do see the private funding model as a potential challenge if the corporate sponsors don’t step up as expected.” But he adds that the plethora of Fortune 500 companies located here gives him reason to hope: “Atlanta is a great place to test this new model.”

4. Make it easy on the eyes. Citi Bike’s bulky docking stations were a flash point even before the first sets of wheels hit the streets. Because the Social Bicycles technology allows a bike to be secured to a standard rack, Atlantans can expect to see a mix of more prominent docking stations in touristy areas—important for branding—and smaller custom racks in residential areas. It’s a balance planners will want to get right.

5. Keep people as safe as possible. Although visions of New York emergency rooms overflowing with bloodied tourists have thus far proven unfounded, the prospect of keeping amateur cyclists safe in a car-centric town full of curvy roads remains daunting. That’s where concurrent efforts to make Atlanta more bike-friendly matter. In November the city completed the Cycle Atlanta: Phase 1.0 Study, which outlined plans for five new physically protected bike corridors between the BeltLine and the city center. The Atlanta Regional Commission has pledged $2 million for these projects, says Mello, which would double the number of high-quality bikeways in the city’s core by 2016.

Heather Alhadeff, a transportation planner with Center Forward who is consulting on Atlanta’s program, says a company called HelmetHub has approached them about partnering to provide helmet rental kiosks. It’s too early to commit, she says, but “we’re happy to look into it and coordinate if possible.” HelmetHub recently debuted their services in Boston.

6. Put the bikes where the people are. This is another no-brainer, and indeed the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition completed a Bikeshare Feasibility Study that identified intown Atlanta, Decatur, and Buckhead as prime candidates for stations. But Citi Bike has illuminated the challenge of “rebalancing” the bikes to accommodate commute patterns; often, kiosks have been empty where they have been most in demand.

Rzepecki says the task of redistributing bikes—usually by truck or trailer—eats up a significant part of any program’s operating budget. Cycle Hop aims to mitigate this burden by incentivizing customers to return bikes to “hub” locations: Customers who do not will incur a charge, while the next customer who rents that bike and returns it to a hub will receive a discount or credit.

Mello says he envisions many Atlantans using the program for last-mile connectivity from transit stations. “Imagine taking MARTA to the Inman Park-Reynoldstown Station, jumping on a bike, and riding along the tree-lined streets of Inman Park to Little Five Points to pick up a new pair of Docs. That thirteen-minute walk becomes a four-minute bike ride. And when you get there, there’s no need to fiddle with a lock. You just dock the bike and walk away.”

Following publication of this article, an Alta Bicycle Share rep contacted me to clarify that Citi Bike is not losing money, contrary to what the Wall Street Journal reported, and that millions of dollars are being sought to expand the system, not to fund current operations.