More than 250 bicycles would be available for short-term rentals at 25 stations throughout Baltimore by this time next year under a bike-sharing program similar to those in Washington and London, city officials said.
The city's financial oversight panel approved an agreement with the state Wednesday to establish Charm City Bikeshare.
Stations — much like the drop-off and pick-up spots for "Zipcars" — are planned for downtown, midtown and Southeast Baltimore.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the rental bikes build on the city's effort to bolster its renewable transportation system, including on-street bike lanes and bike parking in Charles Village.
"This is something that many have been asking, 'So many cities have a bike-share program. Where's ours?' And we are on the way," the mayor said Wednesday.
Officials said the state will pay 80 percent of the $1.1 million start-up costs, including purchasing cycles and station equipment, and Baltimore must come up with the rest. City leaders haven't decided whether to use tax dollars or find a private-sector partner.
Either way, Penny Troutner, the longtime owner of Light Street Cycles, said the agreement before the Board of Estimates could create a boon for the city by boosting commerce and creating a cleaner city with less congestion.
Troutner said she envisions tourists pedaling past local business fronts, professionals exploring new spots for lunch and fewer vehicles clogging the streets.
"This is something we've been waiting for," she said. "Baltimore has huge transportation problems. Too many people drive. There is too much emphasis on cars. That is not what we should be doing."
But some say there is a need for caution.
Ragina Averella, public and government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said motorists and bicyclists are both responsible for traffic safety. Cyclists are allowed to ride in the traffic lane, and motorists are expected to allow at least three feet of distance while passing a rider.
While her organization is designed to support motorists, she said it supports the bike-share program. "Bicycling is becoming not only a recreational activity or one used for exercise, but as an alternative, cheaper and greener way to commute to the workplace," Averella said.
Adrienne Barnes, spokeswoman for the city Department of Transportation, said a vendor to run the program has not been selected. One under consideration is Alta, a Portland, Ore.-based company that runs bike-sharing programs in Washington, Boston and as far away as Melbourne, Australia.
Alta also is launching bike rentals in Montgomery County and New York City, said Mia Birk, vice president of the company. The first and second generations of low-tech bike-sharing programs have existed in European cities for 30 years, she said. But the American programs popped up only about four years ago.
The key to a successful bike-sharing program is being located in a high-density area, where bike renters can use cycles for short trips on a daily basis, she said.
"Who uses it? The answer is lots of people. Everyone," Birk said. "It should be a very good fit for Baltimore."
Washington's program, which enters its third year in September, celebrated its 4-millionth bike ride recently, making it the largest bike-share program in the country, said Monica Hernandez, spokeswoman for the district's Department of Transportation. More than 200 bike drop-off and pick-up stations are located throughout Washington and the nearby Virginia cities of Arlington and Alexandria.
In Washington, renting a bike costs $4.50 for 90 minutes, $7 for a day and $75 for a year's access. No insurance is necessary and users can purchase one-time trips, but renters must be at least 16.
Hernandez said the program is popular among tourists and residents.
Baltimore tried once before to launch bike-sharing program, without success. B-Cycle of Waterloo, Wis., was the successful bidder on a contract in the fall of 2010 to offer a program, but failed to do so before the contract expired. At the time, the contractor was responsible for covering all of the start-up and operating expenses, including buying the bicycles.
This time, the state's Cycle Maryland Initiative will pay much of the costs. Michael Jackson, director of bicycle and pedestrian access for the state Transportation Department, said the state will reimburse the city for capital equipment purchases, such as the cycles and docking stations.
The state expects to spend more than $151 million over the next five years to increase bicycle and pedestrian access on roadways, he said.
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In Baltimore, 100 miles of bike lanes and 39 miles of bike trails have been added to the city infrastructure in about the last five years, said William Hwang, Baltimore's deputy director of transportation.
Hwang said the planned bike-sharing program will be "transformative" for the bike culture in Baltimore.
"You don't need to worry about having your own bicycle, locking it up and worrying about something happening to it," Hwang said. "It expands the options that you may have."