One year into Howard County’s pilot bike-share program, officials say the membership-based endeavor is off to a strong start, but they’d like to see ridership expand.
Cities across the country are launching bikeshare programs to let residents check out bikes for hours at a time. Howard County joined the trend last July with seven stations and an $85 a year membership fee.
As of July 6, the program had 235 active members and has served 4,351 trips, each time a bike is checked out and in from a station. Looking to year two, Howard County Office of Transportation Bike and Pedestrian Coordinator Chris Eatough said he’d like to see the number of trips reach 8,000.
To reach that goal, Eatough said more needs to be done to teach potential users how the program works, a process he thinks some may find confusing to learn how to sign up for an online membership, download the app and check out a bike. The county plans to hold demonstrations and give out free trials for the bikes at community events, in the hopes of showing more people the ease of the program and entice new patrons.
The Office of Transportation is planning a series of bikeshare demonstrations in partnership with the Howard County Library System this summer and fall, as well as a demonstration at the Columbia lakefront Whole Foods Market in August. Dates for the demonstrations have not been decided, according to Eatough.
The county has no plans to expand its nine stations and 78 bikes. The program launched with seven stations in Columbia and added two in Ellicott City over the past year.
“People are interested and intrigued by the program, but first they often don’t know how it works because it is something that’s new to this area,” Eatough said.
Bikes can be used after patrons sign up online for yearly, monthly or one-time memberships and then unlock bikes using the Howard County Bikeshare smartphone app or by holding their membership card up to the dashboard between the handlebars of any bike parked at one of the stations. Passes are $85 per year, $15 per month or $2 for a single trip for 45 minute rides.
Howard County contracts the program with Bewegen Technologies, a Canadian firm that also operates bikeshare programs in nine other U.S. and European cities, including Baltimore City, where it has 500 bikes and 50 stations.
Unlike Baltimore City’s program, which has been plagued by stolen and damaged bikes, Eatough said the county largely hasn’t dealt with such issues. Eatough didn’t know why exactly Howard County has fared better with its bikes, but said it could be because of the county’s lower crime rate or that it simply has fewer bikes. Occasionally, Eatough said bikes are abandoned outside a station, but that because of the GPS tracking devices installed on bikes, they can be easily picked up and returned.
Braunyno Belo Ayotte, director of business development and marketing at Bewegen, said the company is pleased with the program’s performance in its first year. He said he wasn’t certain the program would reach 8,000 rides in year two, but that he feels confident it will continue to grow over the next four years before hitting what he called the typical “plateau” in membership that cities often see after five years.
This year, the bikes bore the Columbia based nonprofit the Horizon Foundation’s logo as the program’s “title sponsor.” Horizon Foundation’s funding will continue, but its time as title sponsor will end in the fall, according to Ayotte. Bewegen has yet to secure a new title sponsor for the program, but both Ayotte and Eatough said that will not change the program’s viability.
The county has pledged funding for the program for six years with a $747,000 budget, funded by both outside sponsorships and county dollars. Horizon Foundation is the program’s biggest financial contributor, having given $250,000 so far, with plans to fund $450,000 over three years.
Other community sponsors include the Columbia Association, Howard County General Hospital, Howard Hughes Corp., Howard Community College and General Growth Properties, owner of the Mall in Columbia. Together the community sponsors have funded $697,000 over six years and the county funded $50,000; revenue from memberships goes directly to Bewegen.
This year’s budget for the program was $108,000. Bewegen’s contract allows the company to request a small increase in its annual fee in case of inflation, according to Eatough, which the county accounted for in its six year budget.
Horizon Foundation president and CEO Nikki Vernick said that in order for the program to fully grow in that time, the county still needs to become more walkable and bikeable.
The Horizon Foundation has been one of the most vocal proponents for more pedestrian connections and a completed bike network throughout the county. County Executive Allan Kittleman included $1.25 million in next year’s budget for bike infrastructure, which the foundation criticized as lacking compared to surrounding counties like Anne Arundel that gave $7.5 million in funds last year.
“Bikeshare is part of larger vision and we’re hoping that over the next five years we see more biking and walking infrastructure and policy in Howard County,” she said.