Like some 1,000 cities around the world large and small, Ann Arbor jumped into the bike sharing fray back in 2014 with the aptly named ArborBike program. Now entering its fourth year in operation the initial funding is starting to wind down and the future of the service is uncertain.
Three years in now, most have probably seen the bikes in motion but a quick refresh for the uninitiated: There are 13 stations around town housing 125 bikes, available for rent with a credit card to the general public by the day, the month or the year. The system is owned and operated by the Clean Energy Coalition in partnership with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (“AAATA”), University of Michigan and City of Ann Arbor. They have a website, pretty straightforward really.
The funding and future of the system however, is less straightforward. The University provided the bulk of the funding for the first three years, committing $200K annually. For 2017, they have reduced their commitment to $80K, dropping to $40K in 2018. Other sources, primarily the Downtown Development Authority, City of Ann Arbor and the AAATA, have stepped up their support to fill in the gaps and ArborBike is operationally funded through the 2017 biking season. Financing for 2018 and beyond is a big question mark but there are some (relatively) simple solutions in sight.
First, it’s important to understand that bike sharing is a form of transit. Even in places like Chicago or London, most trips are not tourists poking around the sights, they’re residents getting from A to B (or maybe poking around the sites a bit themselves). As a percentage, fare collection at ArborBike is already on par with other forms of mass transit and can improve with increased ridership. Second, the system grew organically by 24.57% to 17,675 trips in 2016 according to Sean Reed, Executive Director of the Clean Energy Coalition and head of the service. That’s with no change in service, bikes or stations. It’s starting to take hold. ArborBike needs the proper investment, marketing and partners to not only secure funding but absolutely thrive. Here are three ways to get the system to take off in 2018.
University/AAATA Partnerships with Shared Passes
The fastest way to boost membership and revenue would be to include the service with the UM student MCard. There are 44,718 students at the Ann Arbor campus, each is assessed a couple of small semester fees on top of tuition including $4.25 for Student Legal Services, $4.60 for Central Student Government and $32.50 for University Unions & Recreational Sports Improvements. Adding a few dollars to that last fee and updating the technology so that the MCard could provide immediate access in an integrated system would result in explosive ridership growth and significant operational funding. The same integration should be established with the AAATA, specifically with GoPass. GoPass is the DDA sponsored program that offers heavily discounted unlimited use bus passes for employees working downtown, there were 611,353 rides in 2016. That pass should include ArborBike, again with a unified card system if possible.
Expansion of the System
The system is growing but is limited with the current number and locations of stations. I’ve covered this previously on the blog, the present stations are virtually all at final destinations. They’re downtown, dotted around campus and at the hospital. The problem is that many, I would argue most, people are traveling to those destinations from an area that does not have an ArborBike station. Namely neighborhoods around town, heavily student areas to the south of campus but all over the core of our city. Reed believes there is funding for additional infrastructure from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (“CMAQ”) and other sources if operational financing can be secured. There are also some new examples of stationless bike share that might be an option. The bikes are equipped with locks and GPS technology that would allow them to be dropped off and picked up anywhere within a certain boundary. While the bikes themselves are more expensive, it saves money on kiosks and provides for greater flexibility.
The final piece of the puzzle is identifying a potential corporate sponsor. Most of the larger systems are underwritten by an enormous company, think Citi Bike in NYC, Santander Cycles in London (formerly Barclays Cycle) or Biketown in Portland (Nike). It’s possible that someone local could step in (Bank of Ann ArborBike anyone? they do love to help), the branding and advertising would be excellent but it’s a probably a pretty big check to write. I think the obvious choice here is the closest Fortune 100 company to Ann Arbor, Ford Motor Company. If that sounds crazy, you might be surprised to know that Ford is looking far beyond automobiles, embracing new technologies and all forms of mobility in a changing world. They’re already sponsoring San Francisco’s program, bought crowd-sourced shuttle service Chariot and are opening an office in downtown Ann Arbor. Seems like a perfect fit.
2017 will be a pivotal year for ArborBike, will the growth continue, will funding be secured, will it survive? The suggestions above are easily attainable but it will take a number of organizations working together to achieve them. Sean Reed says the five year goal is 100,000 bike trips and I believe that is absolutely within reach with the right expansion and partnerships.
5 thoughts on “The Uncertain Future and Huge Potential of ArborBike”
Google runs whole buses in the SF to Silicon Valley Run. What’s another 100k a year for them to support AA bikes, for heaven’s sake. They and Llamasoft and Barracuda… maybe another tech company or two, to improve the city they work (and maybe live) in… derive entertainment and resources from, and so on. Where’s their community commitment, one might ask.
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I was an enthusiastic ArborBike user at first, but the bikes are so heavy that I found them unusable for commuting between downtown and north campus, due to the hills. Moreover, a lot of the weight is around the handlebars, making the bike hard to maneuver at low speeds. I have reverted to walking and using AAATA and PTS buses.
I was an outspoken supporter of this project at it’s inception, although I also wanted to see more widespread locations – not just serving the DDA district but serving the neighborhoods – places like Argo Cascades/Northside. I am sorry to see that they have not done more to drum up sponsors for the service, knowing full well that they would have diminishing investment from the university. I know a lot of people use and enjoy the Detroit Bike Share systems and find the use affordable. I hope that ArborBike can hit the bricks and use a little creativity in locating private, beneficial commitments to funding.
Too often when walking past ArborBike docking station, I see the majority of bikes docked. And even though I walk around the AB target area very often, I hardly ever see anybody on an ArborBike. Juxtapose this to NYC where one sees someone on a CitiBike every few seconds.
Even there, the CitiBike system has been in dire financial straights.
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