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The city of Chattanooga's bike-share program is making a serious push for more local members, with a new initiative resulting in a more than 200 percent jump in just over a week thanks to a big investment from the Friends of Outdoor Chattanooga and Blue­Cross BlueShield of Tennessee.

Since July 24 — the third anniversary of the city's Bike Chattanooga program — the city Transportation Department, in a partnership with the Friends of Outdoor Chattanooga and the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation, have been offering first-time subscribers an annual pass for $5 as a way to encourage more local ridership and celebrate the system's third anniversary.

"Our bike-share system was designed for our citizens to replace short trips in the car," said Ben Taylor, a city transportation engineer. "We see the system as a way to replace [car] trips for locals, and we're trying to get more locals to give it a shot so they can experience it and hopefully take us up on that."

The Bike Chattanooga program allows people to check out bikes from 33 stations in and around the downtown area for an hour at a time after purchasing either a 24-hour, three-day or annual membership. Bikes can be checked back into any station after each trip. The system currently has 300 bikes around town.

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The program was innovative within the United States when launched and inspired similar programs in cities such as New York and Chicago. While ridership has increased since the program launch, Taylor said much of that has been driven by out-of-town visitors staying in the downtown hotels.

"I've seen a huge outpouring of interest from tourists," he said. "People coming to town who would bike, and even some who wouldn't normally bike, see the system and jump all over it. We were blown away by the out-of-state usage.

"The locals have not been as quick to pick it up, and we think it's just that they're not that used to it."

City officials and others have been working for some time to find ways to boost local riders and the sales of annual memberships. Prior to the "Activate Chattanooga" program, there were just 400 annual subscribers to the Bike Chattanooga program which was limiting opportunities for the program to grow outside of town and into residential neighborhoods near the city center.

In discussions with Outdoor Chattanooga and the BlueCross Blue­Shield of Tennessee Health Foundation, a decision was made for the groups to put their money directly into getting city residents into the system.

An initial investment of $45,000 is helping fund the Activate Chattanooga program to get local residents more involved and committed to the city bike share program.

"We went round and round on things we could do — advertising campaigns, going on TV to show people how the system works — but the more we discussed it the more we decided that the biggest advertisement would be to have more folks on bikes riding around," Taylor said. "So we took the money we were going to spend on advertising and decided to purchase memberships and get them in the hands of locals."

Jacqueline Hoover and her husband, Bob, were among the first to take advantage of the deal, signing up online shortly after the program was announced. The couple live in a recently annexed part of Middle Valley, but they see the advantages of using the system when they come downtown.

"We like to go downtown sometimes, but it's just such a pain to get the bike hauler on and the bikes on the car," Jacqueline Hoover said. "But now we can go down to the Hunter (Museum) — there's two stations real close — so we can ride around Coolidge Park, then put them back and do whatever we want."

The response to Activate Chattanooga has been encouraging to local officials.

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A row of Chattanooga Bike Share bicycles is seen at a stand on Market Street on Thursday, July 30, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The program is offering $5 monthly memberships.

As of Friday, more than 850 Chattanoogans had signed up for the program since it was launched — either in person or online at www.bikechattanooga.com — boosting the annual membership over 1,000 and giving the project a much-needed shot in the arm.

"We've had a huge push," Taylor said. "We've had folks signing up in record numbers, and we see there is a demand for this."

After the first year, subscribers who want to remain part of the system will be renewed at the standard $50 annual membership fee, which was recently lowered from $75 as part of a fee restructuring to boost annual memberships while increasing the cost of a 24-hour pass from $6 to $8 and the three-day pass from $12 to $15.

The program is limited and could end soon, although the final amount of investment and a deadline for signups remain fluid as city officials gauge the response.

"We'll look at how many folks start riding and how much demand we see, and that will guide me on when we wrap this up," Taylor said.

If the program is successful in getting more local residents using the bike-share system, officials are hopeful that they can increase the number of stations and expand into residential neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area.

"St. Elmo, the Highland Park area and further up into the North Shore area are locations that are at the top of our list," Taylor said. "The stations are not cheap so we're looking for partners to do that with.

"We're trying to look at some of the new apartment builders to see if they could host Bike Chattanooga stations at their locations."

While city transportation leaders assess the level of success of the program, hundreds of city residents like the Hoovers are eagerly awaiting their keys to unlock a bike and begin using the system — and to use their low-cost yearly membership.

"I think it really shows initiative on Chattanooga's part to have this," Jacqueline Hoover said. "I mean, this is kind of special."

Contact Jim Tanner at jftanner@bellsouth.net. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.

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