Even now, Explore Bike Share founder Doug Carpenter does not try to pretend that the initiative will cure all that ails Memphis.
It won’t wipe out poverty. It can’t cure cancer. It won’t eliminate diabetes and obesity, solve all of the city’s transportation problems or totally bridge cultural and racial gaps that predate the bicycle’s invention.
But Carpenter, founder and principal of advertising and communications firm DCA, does make this promise: “I can tell you with 100 percent confidence that once bikes are on the ground it will be an asset that no one will want to have go away. When people talk about companies considering moving to the city, this is one of things that can be attractive to younger demographics.”
Bike sharing operates on a simple, but multilayered premise: convenience, accessibility, affordability and mobility. A network of bicycles, kept at “stations” across the city, can be rented and returned to any station. Users can pay per ride, per day, per month or per year.
Although siting for the Memphis stations has not formally begun, at launch there will be 600 bikes at 60 stations within the Interstate 240 loop. The stations will be in places you would expect, along with some you might not expect. So, yes, look for stations Downtown, located near obvious attractions such as FedExForum, Sun Studio and AutoZone Park. There also will be stations in Overton Park, Orange Mound, Cooper-Young, Binghampton, Midtown and the University District.
“You can ride wherever you want to go, check the bike back in, not have to worry about a bike lock or air in the tires,” said Sara Studdard, project manager for Explore Bike Share, which operates as a nonprofit with a board of directors. “It’s a very freeing experience.”
Carpenter’s firm, DCA (formerly Doug Carpenter & Associates), launched Explore Bike Share in 2015. But two years earlier, the city of Memphis had commissioned Alta Planning + Design to conduct a feasibility study on a bike-sharing program. The result of that study was daunting. It likely would cost the city $5 million to implement.
Not surprisingly, the wheels stopped turning at that point. The study sat idle when no funding source emerged, as the city moved on to other, more urgent financial matters.
Carpenter and the board had their own ideas of how to get a bike-share program rolling.
“We wanted to do something for Memphians by Memphians,” he said. “We wanted to press the limits and explore.”
Oh, and the $5 million price tag the city couldn’t afford? No longer part of the equation.
“We made a conscious decision not to ask the city for money,” said Carpenter, adding that they have raised $1.5 million of the $4 million they believe it will take to get started. “We wanted to move quickly and we wanted to do this without burdening the city.”
“This is a key piece to rebuilding the city’s core,” said John Paul Shaffer, program director at Livable Memphis and a member of Explore Bike Share’s board. “It sends a message. It makes Memphis a destination for healthy tourism and (positions) the city as a healthy population.”
On that score, the city has needed some repositioning. The Type 2 diabetes rate in Shelby County is among the worst in the country. About 35 percent of the adult population in the Memphis metro area is obese, and 28 percent of Memphians have not exercised at even a minimal level in the last month.
While the Explore Bike Share team appreciated the early work done through the feasibility study, they also reached out to other bike-share programs. Some 600 cities worldwide operate bike sharing systems, so there was, well, no need to reinvent the wheel.
“Obviously, we’re not the first ones to do this,” said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s sweeping the planet, and it’s something that in big markets is kind of expected now.”
Philadelphia and Minneapolis are perhaps the closest benchmarks to the Memphis program.
When Minneapolis launched its Nice Ride program in June 2010, it did so after conducting community sessions to gain input from citizens. Alta Planning + Design also had done the feasibility study for Minneapolis and a phased-in approach was recommended.
But that resulted in a low-income, mostly minority neighborhood north of downtown Minneapolis initially being excluded. Nice Ride, in turn, faced criticism; Memphis learned from this the dangers of the phase-in model.
Bill Dossett, executive director of Nice Ride, says the Minneapolis team also underestimated the importance of downtown hotel customers. And while they now are reaching those underserved neighborhoods, he adds, it’s important to realize not every area will have a high participation rate.
That’s not to suggest all low-income areas won’t be frequent users of the system. For instance, Minneapolis has a low-income downtown high-rise with a large immigrant population.
“The bikes get used around there a lot,” Dossett said.
But in single-family neighborhoods, Dossett says, the low-income, low-density combination results in limited usage of the bikes.
Nice Ride received two-thirds of its initial funding from the public sector. Currently, each station in North Minneapolis operates at a $2,500 annual loss subsidized by a combination of grants, sponsorships and private funding. Nice Ride operates as a nonprofit and does not use public funds, relying instead on revenue from users and private sources to keep running.
Memphis, too, will need ongoing private and grant funding in combination with revenues to sustain its bike-share program. Early projections put ongoing expenses at $1.15 million, with $650,000 going toward operations – including $200,000 per year for education and community engagement – and $500,000 for employee salaries and benefits.
Early projections for annual revenue are pegged at a little more than $1.2 million, with $500,000 coming from sponsorships (title, station sponsorships and bike sponsor), $425,000 from membership and usage fees, and $150,000 from ongoing program funding.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s Indego system focused on reaching underserved neighborhoods from the outset and worked to create a hyperlocal system. To foster community ownership of the system, Indego created a public art partnership with Mural Art that included a social media campaign. The city was also the first to offer a payment alternative to credit cards, a benefit to residents who don’t have credit cards and perhaps not even a bank account.
In Philadelphia, customers can use an electronic cash pay option through retailers such as 7-Eleven and Family Dollar stores. A cash payment option in Memphis is considered a mandate, Studdard says, but they don’t yet know what form it will take.
Studdard went on a study group ride in Philadelphia with people from other cities that are starting up bike-share systems, including Atlanta, Baltimore and Los Angeles.
“We went from the heart of downtown to underserved neighborhoods,” she said. “It was February, raining and cold and miserable, and it was still a lot of fun.”
THE RIGHT TIME
Explore Bike Share has held community meetings in several locations, including Binghampton, Orange Mound and South Memphis, to encourage early buy-in, and more sessions will be held as the process moves forward.
Dwayne Jones, an Orange Mound advocate and an Explore Bike Share board member, believes the neighborhood is a good fit, in part, because bike sharing offers another means for residents to get to and from work and the grocery store, and because it has a health benefit. He also adds a truth too often overlooked: “A lot of people can’t afford to purchase bikes.”
Said Doug McGowen, city of Memphis chief operating officer and chairman of Explore Bike Share: “Bike share helps shrink the city if you’re transportation-challenged.”
McGowen has used bike-share systems in Chicago and Chattanooga; in Memphis, he sometimes combines riding his own bike with using MATA to get to and from work.
One of the goals of the Memphis system is to ultimately bring bike lanes, trails, greenways and greenlines together while filling in gaps in bus service.
“Realistically, this can’t be for everybody at launch,” Carpenter said. “We have a city that’s expanded too far out for my preference. And the more spread out you get, the less functional bike share can be.”
Minneapolis’ Dossett says Nice Ride expanded to neighboring St. Paul before there were enough downtown bike lanes, and that was a mistake.
“People don’t use the bikes,” he said.
As recently as 2008-2010, Memphis was named one of the three worst bicycling cities in the United States.
But by 2015, Memphis had more than 200 miles of dedicated bicycling lanes, trails and routes in use and the city was designated an official “bicycle friendly community” by the League of American Bicyclists. Another 140 miles of lanes and trails are scheduled to be implemented in 2016-17.
Memphis may not be among the first cities to have a bike-share program, but the timing now feels right.
“A couple of years ago when they were just filling out the bike lane network, this wouldn’t have made sense,” Shaffer said.
A CHANGED CITY?
What McGowen likes best about the Memphis bike-share system is simple: “The focus is on equity and inclusion. That’s foundational.”
While the pricing is still a work in progress, the early numbers call for a walk-up rate of $4 for every 30 minutes of ride time and a $10 to $15 monthly membership fee. Studdard says they are seeking private and foundation sponsors and there remains the goal of a major title sponsor.
“We are having conversations,” she said.
Carpenter hopes to have the remaining $2.5 million of the $4 million needed for launch by mid-summer. Then it’s six to seven months from that point to get wheels on the ground. The vendor that will set up and oversee the system, Wisconsin-based BCycle, already has been selected and has 40 other bike-share systems in operation across the country, including ones in Nashville and Clarksville, Tenn.
“It’s going to be a pretty cool amenity,” Kane said.
Programming, Studdard says, will include a music route that would take riders to St. Blues Guitar Workshop, Sun Studio, the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Gibson Guitar Factory and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music while also pointing out historical landmarks, public art and other points of interest.
But the biggest changes figure to benefit Memphis’ own residents.
Consider: In Denver, 43 percent of bike-share members said they use bikes to replace car trips. Bicyclists in Philadelphia ride 260,000 miles daily, saving 47,450 tons of CO2 emitted by cars each year.
And now, in Memphis, even before Explore Bike Share has rolled out, people make more than 6,000 trips by bicycle each day.
“Many small things add up to the way a city feels about itself,” McGowen said. “This is another opportunity for us to feel good.”
Asked what effect Explore Bike Share might have on Memphis in five, 10 or 20 years, Carpenter searches for one answer and comes up with another.
“Even I don’t have the kind of imagination that can project the impact it will have,” he said. “But I believe it’s going to be a great gift for the city.”