You’re paying for those blue bikes around Charlotte

You’re paying for those blue bikes around Charlotte
Dianna Ward, head of B-cycle program in Charlotte. (Davie Hinshaw | The Charlotte Observer)
Dianna Ward, head of B-cycle program in Charlotte. (Davie Hinshaw | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Jim Morrill/The Charlotte Observer) - They were Charlotte's first fling in the new world of bike-sharing, the bright blue bikes that popped up around town in 2012, just in time for the Democratic National Convention.

But no longer are B-cycles the only game in town. The latest entrants, LimeBike and Spin, put hundreds of neon green and orange bikes on the streets in recent weeks. A Chinese-based company called Ofo soon plans to add 500 yellow bikes to the mix.

This month the city council approved nearly $1.7 million in federal transportation grants for Charlotte B-cycle, making it the city's only bike-share program to receive public money.

Advocates say B-cycles, with 214 bikes and 26 fixed docking stations scattered around the central city, are as much a part of the transportation infrastructure as buses and rail.

"We're there to be an extension of the transportation system," said Dianna Ward, executive director of Charlotte B-cycles.

Skeptics question the use of taxpayer money to help a private entity, and whether that gives B-cycle an unfair advantage over so-called dockless competition.

Jeff Viscount, owner of WeeklyRides.com, an online clearinghouse for information on area cycling, told council members this month that with private bike-shares continuing to roll in, the new grants create a "business partnership" between the city and B-cycle, a nonprofit arm of Charlotte Center City Partners.

"Federal taxpayer money is being used to expand a private business," he told the Observer.

Ward said like the bus system, B-cycles needs public subsidies for equipment. Operating costs are paid by corporate sponsors and rider fees. "We're a public transportation system," she said.

Council members easily approved the subsidy.

"B-cycle is a program that we've seen succeed and be managed responsibly over five years, so we've got a trust level with them," said council member Larken Egleston.

Dockless in Seattle

Docked systems like B-Cycle are in use across the country. B-cycles itself is in more than 30 cities including Austin, Denver and Nashville. In Charlotte it's funded by Blue Cross Blue Shield and Carolina HealthCare System.

But the number of dockless bikes like Spin and LimeBike is exploding. Unlike docked systems, dockless cycles are equipped with GPS and can be picked up and left anywhere. Users unlock the "smart bikes" with a smartphone app. Each ride costs $1 for every 30 minutes. When they're done, riders lock the bike's back wheel and leave it.

B-cycles, by contrast, charge $8 for a 24-hour pass and $65 for an annual membership, less for students. The annual membership includes the first hour of each trip. It costs $4 for each additional 30 minutes.

Proponents consider dockless bikes the Ubers or Lyfts of cycling: stationless modes of transportation that can go virtually anywhere. "What's really unique about the dockless model is it's really convenient," said Taylor Bennett, a spokesman for Ofo. "You don't have to go out of your way to find a dock."

Ward said B-cycles offers reliability. Users know where to look. And cost-wise, she said they're competitive for frequent riders who buy an annual pass. Students get special rates and the program makes accommodations for people who otherwise can't afford it.

Dockless advocates claimed victory in Seattle this spring when that city pulled the plug on its docked bike-share system, called Pronto. Three months later, hundreds of dockless bikes were on the streets in what Bicycling magazine called an "epic rebound."

"Long story, but the shortest version is they never built enough stations to really make it useful," said Tom Fucoloro, founder and editor of Seattle Bike Blog. "It didn't go that many places."

People are using the private, dockless bikes "like crazy," he said. "That sort of proves the point, there is a demand for the service, Pronto just wasn't meeting it."

But Seattle may be the aberration. Docked systems like B-cycle appear to be prospering in other cities. This month Washington, D.C., transportation officials said dockless bikes have not taken riders away from the 7-year-old Capital Bikeshare program.

Room for all

Charlotte transportation planner Alex Riemondy said permits now allow private dockless companies to deploy 500 bikes around town. That's more than twice the current number of B-cycles. At the end of a one-year trial period, the number of dockless bikes could be increased.

"Ultimately, (the city is) interested in learning more about how these two systems can work together to increase transportation choices within Charlotte," Riemondy said.

B-cycle's Ward said the new grants will allow her system to add 25 docking stations and expand beyond the center of town. Several developers have already agreed to pay for docking stations at their new developments. And the system will add its own "smart" bikes that don't have to be docked but can be parked in designated "bike corrals"

B-cycle advocates say there's room for competition.

"We're thrilled to have these operators bring dockless bikes to our community," said Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners. "Now we've got more options. It's our belief that this hybrid system – the privately operated dockless (bikes) and public non-profit operated docked system bring different benefits.

"When you put them together, you end up with a more complete offering."