Building a Better Bike Share

What happens when you finally arrive?

For decades I’ve been trying to get more people onto bikes in my adopted hometown of Norfolk, Virginia. I’ve tried appealing to their motivation; reminding them that they say that want to ride more. I’ve tried to create more opportunities for folks to bike by working with my local advocacy group, Bike Norfolk, to lobby for more bicycle infrastructure. And I’ve tried to increase the ability of my family and their friends to ride by regularly tuning up their bikes. Yet no matter what I did, I still felt like a lonely prophet in a sea of internal combustion.

Enter Zagster, and their Norfolk Pace Bike program.

Pace bikes are simple, reliable and user-friendly.

On a recent sunny spring day in Norfolk, I looked up from wrapping sandwiches at Jimmy John’s  (for delivery by bike) to see a dozen gleaming white bicycles being unloaded from the back of the truck and then locked to the bike racks along the street. It’s finally happening, I thought, bike share is here!

Bike-share” is what it sounds like: instead of owning a bike outright, and then only riding it occasionally, a person can rent a bike when they need it for a few minutes, hours or days. Maybe it’s to ride to class. Maybe it’s a quick spin to the drug store for some relief from the spring pollen. Maybe it’s bar hopping with friends.

Of course, bike share works best in a dense urban community that already has a critical mass of both bicycle infrastructure and bicyclists. A decade ago, when I had been organizing and leading Critical Mass bike rides in Norfolk, we had only a vision of Norfolk as a cycling city. The reality then was that without bike lanes, bike racks and bike culture, riding in Norfolk was a lonely, iconoclastic exercise.  Now our vision is becoming a reality. After a major municipal investment in bicycle infrastructure, our cycling dream was being validated by capitalism. Norfolk was finally bikeable enough to be profitable to a bike-share program.

Pace Bikes are docked at key locations throughout the city.

At first, the Pace Bikes stayed where they had been locked up, in groups of three and four near university lecture halls and grocery stores. But then they started to spread. I began to see students and professors alike riding across campus on Pace Bikes. And a couple of days later they began to spread away from campus and into residential neighborhoods. Unlike the much-ballyhooed bike share programs in Paris and New York, there is no need to “dock” Pace Bikes to a proprietary bike stand. Pace Bikes can be locked up anywhere. People can check them out from a bike stand near their favorite restaurant and ride them home. In the morning the same folks can ride them to work, and lock them up to any convenient bike rack, no fuss. With a smartphone app, it’s easy to find and reserve a bike. Each Pace Bike has its own GPS receiver and an electronic wheel lock. Without a reservation, a Pace Bike can’t be unlocked or ridden away. If there’s a wobble in a wheel or soft tire, it can be reported in the app, and a mechanic will be dispatched.

In the first month of service, Pace Bikes were ridden for almost six thousand hours in Norfolk, according to Aviva Manin, Account Director for Zagster, the largest bike-share provider in North America. “When we look at the data from the past month of operations in Norfolk, we see thousands and thousands of bike rides that wouldn’t have taken place otherwise…because the barrier to being a biker is so low.”

Continuing, Aviva said that, “to get people to change their behavior, you have to provide the motivation, the opportunity, and the ability. It’s going to be a matter of focusing on specific user groups, what their use-cases are, and what behavior change actually looks like. And where we are in Norfolk right now in the life cycle is getting people out riding, getting people having fun, remembering how much biking adds to their lives, and then narrowing down on specific user groups: your students, your tourists, your professionals, and understanding what the gaps are in motivation, opportunity and ability, and building that out.”

As the summer of 2018 progresses, Norfolk can expect to see more folks renting Pace Bikes in groups of twos and threes, taking a spin downtown along the Elizabeth River Trail, or riding from one microbrewery to the next, making casual users into habitual cyclists. The cultural changes that early bicycle adopters pushed for in the past decade will be cemented and intensified in the coming months. As Aviva explained, “One of the things we definitely hear is for people who are sort of car-dependent or habitual car users, is they see parking and streets being taken up by bike infrastructure, and at first it feels really threatening: congestion is going to get worse, parking is going to get more difficult.”

While in the short-term it may seem that there is less space for cars, it’s really more space for people. It’s space for people to spend more time enjoying their community, and less time trapped in a steel box, trying to get somewhere. It’s about living life more fully and getting away from the automobile-centric lifestyle. It’s about manifesting our best human potential. As H.G. Wells said, “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”

What happens when you arrive? You go for another ride.

Go for a victory lap.

Author Wesley Cheney leaves  Jimmy John’s  in Norfolk, Virginia for Skagway Alaska for a summer of leading bicycle tours down Alaska’s White Pass for Sockeye Cycle Co. He broadcasts his ukulele performances on Periscope.

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