The city's bike-share program is getting a party and a few new additions as it celebrates its fourth birthday this weekend.
Bike Chattanooga officials say the Walnut Street bridge bike rental station will be doubled and four new stations added to the bike-share system, bringing the number of rental stations to 37.
The city also is hiring four part-time employees to staff select stations and promote ridership to residents as Bike Chattanooga officials seek to raise the number of annual members.
"This is the city's bike-share system," city assistant transportation engineer Ben Taylor said. "People think that it's a private business out there that's catering to tourists. But this is Chattanooga's bike transit system. The city transportation department has put in miles of new bike facilities, and we want to make sure that all of our citizens have a way to use that."
A lighter bike model called the "Fit" is expected to be introduced to the expanded system later this year when it becomes available, and bike-share users now can reserve bikes using the Transit app on their smartphones.
The new developments are coming free to taxpayers thanks to grants and support from the Lyndhurst Foundation, Friends of Outdoor Chattanooga and BlueCross BlueShield's Tennessee Health Foundation.
If you go:
Bike Chattanooga Birthday Bash
When: Today 5-7 p.m.
Where: Lululemon Athletica in Warehouse Row
What: Help celebrate the city bike-share program’s fourth birthday on your way to Nightfall with games, contests, giveaways and snacks
Bike Chattanooga has employed college students during events like the USA Pro Cycling Championships to help tourists rent bikes, but Taylor said the new ambassadors will focus primarily on engaging locals, including those who may drive to the urban core from suburban areas.
"You can park on the outskirts of downtown, have a membership and ride around into downtown instead of circling around looking for a parking space," he said. "We're going to put our ambassadors not just on the riverfront where a lot of visitors are, but at the Main Street station where residents walk by all the time.
"If we have someone there to explain it to them, give them a coupon and entice them to take that first ride, we've seen that taking the first ride helps people realize it's not a big deal. There's just an initial shock to a big bike vending machine that can be a bit intimidating to folks."
Statistics provided by the city indicate the program has 2,942 annual members. Newspaper archives show there were just 550 members in July of 2014 when The Wall Street Journal used Chattanooga's bike-share system to exemplify the struggles facing bike-share programs around the country.
But the Tennessee Health Foundation and Friends of Outdoor Chattanooga partnered with the city transportation department last year to offer first-time subscribers annual passes for $5, resulting in a large jump in memberships. Annual memberships are now $50, while 24-hour passes are $8 and three-day passes are $15.
City transportation director Blythe Bailey said the program is financially sustainable because the city's deal with bike-share operator Motivate does not require any taxpayer backing.
"The ridership has continued to go up," he said. "It's something people are interested in, visitors and locals. Most importantly, we know from surveys done all over the country that Americans want opportunities to walk or bike. If they have safe opportunities to do so, they will give it a try. I think what the Bike Share has done is that it creates that entry for people who aren't going to load up on the bike rack on their car otherwise."
Of the five proposed locations for the four new stations, four are on existing or future portions of the Tennessee Riverwalk. The other is on M.L. King Boulevard.
Taylor said the ambassadors will collect information from residents on their preferred locations for the new stations before the final decision is made.
The new stations are expected to be installed this fall.
Contact staff writer David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.