2 years later, Chattanooga bike-share program is struggling

2 years later, Chattanooga bike-share program is struggling

July 11th, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local - Breaking News

FAST FACT

Of the 550 annual members who use Bike Chattanooga, more than half live in the North Shore-Red Bank area or in the heart of downtown, from the waterfront to just north of Main Street.

POLL: Should the bike share system continue?

Despite a national news story dinging Chattanooga for a bike-sharing program that is 90 percent below its projected goal, Chattanooga transportation officials say they are considering whether to expand.

Chattanooga was featured Thursday in a Wall Street Journal story highlighting how bike-sharing programs across the country face delays and financial troubles. Several years ago, Chattanooga officials funneled $2.1 million from a federal grant toward the purchase of 300 bikes and other equipment for its program.

Yet today Bike Chattanooga has fewer than 550 annual members -- one-tenth of its original goal.

Philip Pugliese, Chattanooga's bicycle program coordinator, said the program aimed high.

Original projections called for at least 5,000 annual members, each paying $75 a year. It was anticipated that some of the city's largest downtown companies would sign on and play a large part in the program's success. But that hasn't happened, Pugliese said.

Meanwhile the number of casual riders has risen, but the program still operates in the red.

"It's like many businesses," Pugliese said. "It's a more short-term cash-flow problem."

City Transportation Director Blythe Bailey said the city has no plans to use taxpayer money to keep the program afloat.

But City Councilman Yusuf Hakeem says the city can't ignore the fact that after two years, the program isn't sustaining itself.

The city needs to take a hard look at whether it should continue, Hakeem said.

"If we can't see where it can support itself .... we're going to have to look at some alternatives," he said.


The city's bike-sharing program launched in July 2012 after multiple delays.

To run the operation, the city partnered with Alta Bicycle Share Inc., a Portland-based company that operates local governments' bike share programs in multiple cities across the country.

Under the contract, 75 percent of any profit would go to the city and 25 percent to Alta Bicycle Share. By September 2013 the $2 million federal grant that bankrolled the program ran out.

The program took in $98,767 in 2013, but that didn't come close to offsetting operational and administrative costs of $500,000. So far in 2014, revenue stands at $84,000 and the program is still operating in the red.

City transportation officials say there's been an increase in overall ridership -- mainly short-term recreational trips -- to show there is growing interest in renting a bicycle to go from Main Street across the Tennessee River into the North Shore or vice versa.

A bike share rack is located in North Chattanooga.

Photo by Shawn Paik/Times Free Press.

They said about 11,400 people bought 24-hour bike-share passes in 2013, but couldn't immediately provide a comparative figure to demonstrate the increase.

But the Fourth of July weekend capped the program's second-highest week of ridership at 2,131 trips, according to figures provided by Alta.

Bailey said he hopes that as the city continues to invest in multiple forms of transportation, such as adding a protected bike lane on Broad Street, interest in the bicycle sharing program will increase.

He also said the city will work with Alta to improve the program.

One change under consideration is whether to add to the 33 solar-powered docking stations and place some of them closer to neighborhoods such as Jefferson Heights, Alton Park or Hill City, Pugliese said.

Another option is to consider whether the 60-minute limit before bikes must be redocked at a station is practical, Pugliese said.

Already a few businesses, including the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, have tried to spur interest by offering to pay the annual fee if employees use the bike share program.

About 30 Chamber employees bike to their appointments and meetings around town in suits, which Chamber spokesman J. Ed Marston said has attracted attention.

"Essentially, we think it's a worthy idea to try," Marston said. "We value opportunities to test ideas to see if there is value for the business community. We found it's extremely convenient, particularly downtown."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.