By officially launching a bike-sharing system Thursday, Charlotte stepped to the forefront of a phenomenon rapidly taking root in cities around the world.
Charlotte B-cycle, the first bike-sharing system in North Carolina, will provide paying users with 200 bikes at 20 stations in and around uptown. The system is intended for point-to-point trips in which users can check out a bike from one station and return it to a station near their destination.
Bike sharing, which began in Europe in the 1960s, has expanded rapidly in North America in recent years. Denver’s B-cycle program was the first large-scale bike-share program in the country; it launched in April 2010.* Now more than 30 places in the U.S. have or are planning to launch systems. B-cycle, a Wisconsin-based company that provided Charlotte's system, has launched 15 such systems since it started with Denver’s.
“It’s quite a remarkable phenomenon,” said John Cock of Davidson, a manager with Alta Planning + Design. Alta’s sister company, Alta Bicycle Share, operates a number of bike-share programs but isn’t involved with Charlotte’s program. Cock, a cycling enthusiast, credits a growing grass roots movement of young urban residents interested in biking.
“In the last few years, there’s been this emergence of bike culture,” he said. He noted a decline in the number of young people getting drivers licenses and an interest in having more transportation options, such as public transit and biking. He speculated that one factor might be people wanting to be connected to mobile devices – cell phones and tablets – which you can’t do easily or safely while driving.
The phenomenon is not confined to the United States. Paris has a robust bike-share program, Velib, launched in 2007, which operates more than 20,000 bicycles and averages 80,000 to 120,000 trips daily. At least 25 European countries have bike sharing, as do South Korea and at least two cities in China.
Organizers at Thursday's announcement boasted that Charlotte B-cycle is debuting ahead of New York City's, which is set to launch later this month. Other Southeastern cities planning, studying or talking about programs include Chattanooga, Memphis, Birmingham, Ala., and Asheville, said Cock. “Every city on the map is thinking about this,” he quipped.
Cock said bike-share systems are typically used for short, often spontaneous trips rather than rides of several hours. In many cities the quick bicycle trip is faster and cheaper than driving or taking public transit or a taxi. And it adds “the whole fun factor.”
The systems can have a big effect in increasing bicycling in a city. “Bike-sharing becomes like a gateway drug” to urban cycling, he said. “It’s transformational in that it lets people take trips by bike they hadn’t thought about.”
Supporters hope the system will get Charlotte residents out of their cars and into more active lifestyles.
"We believe it's going to change the nature of our center city, making it quicker and easier to get around town," said former Mayor Harvey Gantt, board chairman at Charlotte Center City Partners. The nonprofit uptown booster group worked with local officials to organize Charlotte B-cycle after setting out to make Charlotte "a city of bikes" in its 2020 Vision Plan.
Organizers have installed the system's first two stations at The Square (Trade and Tryon streets) and at the 7th Street Public Market. They plan to complete the rest of the stations by the end of July.
After a free trial period through this weekend, daily memberships will cost $8 and annual memberships $65. Trips of 30 minutes or less will be free, but users will pay $4 for every 30 minutes thereafter. The stations accept credit or debit cards but not cash.
Charlotte's system is being sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, which is investing $4 million over four years in a "Get Outside North Carolina!" or “GO NC!” campaign to encourage the state's residents to get outside, active and healthy.
The campaign will contribute $2.25 million to cover the bike-share system's initial infrastructure costs and annual maintenance over the next four years, BCBSNC said.
Also as part of the campaign, BCBSNC is sponsoring a loop that will connect a network of recreational trails at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh and the final phase of a 15-mile trail across Wilmington.
BCBSNC customers will be eligible for a 20 percent discount on annual memberships in Charlotte B-cycle. Other sponsors of Charlotte B-cycle are Carolinas HealthCare System and Verizon Wireless.
B-cycle president Bob Burns said bike-sharing systems often dramatically increase bike ridership in cities. They convince people who haven't ridden in years to return to cycling and sometimes motivate people to buy their own bikes, benefiting local retailers, he said.
"People need to see it," he said "Then they understand it and then they want it."
The most common trip purpose for bike sharing is commuting to work or school, according to a June study of bike-sharing in North America published by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University.
But bike sharing can appeal to tourists, too.
Rita Newman, a visitor to Charlotte who came to Thursday's announcement to learn more about bike sharing, was intrigued by its potential to improve public health and said she’d like to try such a system. Newman, 67, who bikes about 40 miles a week, was in Charlotte from Evansville, Ind., for a convention. She and her husband often rent bikes when they travel, she said.
"I think America needs to get in better shape to say the least," she said.
* An earlier version of this article mistakenly said Washington's Capital Bikeshare, launched in August 2010, was the nation’s first large-scale bike-share program.
Want to know more about bike sharing? Click here for a video about the phenomenal success of Washington's bike-sharing system.
To join Charlotte B-Cycle: http://charlotte.bcycle.com