Apr 18, 2014

South By Southwest Puts New Austin Bike-Sharing Program on a Roll

B-cycle user Michael Senftleber pedals down Congress Street between his two offices this week. Senftleber purchased an annual membership earlier this month, adding to the 581 members Austin B-Cycle had accumulated through South by Southwest. Photo by Shelby Isbell.

B-Cycle user Michael Senftleber pedals down Congress Street between his two offices this week. Senftleber purchased an annual membership earlier this month, adding to the 581 members Austin B-Cycle had accumulated through South by Southwest. Photo by Shelby Isbell.

By Shelby Isbell
For Reporting Texas

Austin’s fledging bike-sharing program, B-Cycle, took off during the 2014 South by Southwest festival, racking up nearly 17 times its normal usage and setting a U.S. daily bike-share usage record. Thanks largely to SXSW, Austin B-Cycle, just four months old, shows signs of rivaling San Antonio’s 3-year-old program.

Austin B-Cycle expected around 7,500 checkouts during SXSW, but ended up with 17,724.

“We had not expected this kind of boost. We are thrilled with the response and think it shows what a good match bike-share is for South by Southwest and for Austin in general,” said Elliot McFadden, Austin B-Cycle’s executive director.

B-Cycle is a nonprofit that operates bike-sharing services in 22 U.S. cities, including Houston and Fort Worth, according to its website. Similar to the Car2Go rental system, users pick up a bike at one of several rental stations, pay by credit card, then return them to any station for the next user to pick up.

A day pass costs $8 plus $4 plus every 30 minutes, while an annual membership costs $80 plus $4 for every 30 minutes. The first half-hour is always free.

Numerous municipal bike-sharing programs have opened across the U.S. in recent years: there were 35 in 2013, up from 20 in 2012, an increase of 65 percent. At least 25 more cities are exploring or planning programs in 2014, according to Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Though Austin and San Antonio’s programs are still young, Austin appears to be in better financial shape. The Austin program, which started Dec. 21, is covering 75 percent of its operations and maintenance costs by membership and usage fees, with the rest paid for through sponsorships and advertising. After three years, San Antonio B-Cycle covers 40 percent of those costs through membership and usage, according to Gus Sullivan, its business development director.

B-Cycle’s goal is that its local programs will cover all of their operations and maintenance costs through membership and usage fees.

McFadden estimated that with Austin B-Cycle’s current 40 stations, it would need about 2,500 to 3,000 annual members and 20,000 to 30,000 day passes per year to approach self-sustainability. It remains well short of the annual membership goal, with 581 as of the end of SXSW, although SXSW put it about halfway to the day-pass target with 11,895.

“Our projection was that about half of our budget for year one, about $700,000, would come from user fees and half from sponsorships, but we are getting more usage than we were expecting,” McFadden said.

From its Dec. 21 launch to Feb. 28, Austin B-Cycle averaged 1,033 checkouts a week, but it tallied 17,724 checkouts the 10 days of SXSW – more than its total to that point. Its SXSW daily per-bike checkout rate of 10.1 beat the previous record, held by Citibike in New York City, which recorded 7.2 checkouts per bike per day last September, McFadden said.

The SXSW increase could translate into more usage throughout the year. During SXSW, 36 percent of day passes sold were from local ZIP codes, and by the next week, Austin B-Cycle had seen a bump in membership enrollment and general usage, McFadden said.

By comparison, since 2011, San Antonio B-Cycle’s 51 stations average 1,075 day passes and 62 annual passes a month, or a total of 42,000 day passes and 2,215 annual subscriptions as of April 1, according to Sullivan.

Austin also has a more developed bicycle infrastructure. Features such as bike lanes, cycle tracks – bike lanes separated from traffic by parked cars – and signage are imperative to a bike-sharing system’s success, Shaheen said.

Austin, which encompasses an area of 298 square miles, has 210 miles of bike lanes. San Antonio, which covers 461 square miles, has 251 miles of bike lanes.

The city’s cycling culture and bike infrastructure are signs that B-Cycle will be successful here, Shaheen said in an email.

Both programs relied on federal grants allocated through city government to equip and install the rental stations. Each station includes a row of bike docks, bikes with handlebar baskets, solar panels and an air card that connects the kiosk to the Internet to allow for credit card transactions, said Sullivan, the San Antonio bicycle program official.

Austin B-Cycle received $1.5 million of federal money through the City of Austin, said Adrian Lipscombe, a project manager for the city. That money, combined with $500,000 in private donations, allowed B-Cycle to establish 40 stations across Central Austin, she said.

San Antonio B-Cycle received $3 million in 2011 from the federal stimulus package, according to Julia Murphy of the city’ s Office of Sustainability. The organization used the money to create 51 stations in downtown San Antonio. San Antonio B-Cycle later received about $1.8 million in federal, state and city funding for expansion throughout the city.

According to a 2012 report led by Shaheen, 58 percent of bike-sharing services are nonprofits that rely on grants, sponsorships or loans to operate. Local governments have been able to justify funding bike-sharing programs because they can encourage tourism, attract young and educated people, promote public health, relieve traffic congestion and reduce air pollution, Shaheen said.

For users, bike-sharing can serve as a form of public transit or as a convenient alternative when using a car would be a hassle.

Michael Senftleber, a manager at Spredfast, a social media company, is a B-cycle annual member who uses the bikes to travel back and forth between the company’s two downtown locations.

“My bike is rusty and I haven’t ridden it in five years. These are basic but sturdy and reliable,” Senftleber said. “There are stations located outside of both of the offices, so it works perfect for me.”