When College Park, Md., set out to build a bike-sharing network, officials envisioned a kiosk-based system with super-durable bikes and high-tech stations -- much like nearby Washington, D.C.'s popular program. In fact, College Park, home to the University of Maryland, had planned to join the district's bike share, but the deal fell through.
Luckily the city of 30,000 was able to salvage a state grant and put that money toward a different vendor. That's when city officials stumbled onto Zagster, a venture-funded startup that designs, builds and operates bike-sharing programs for smaller markets. The company created an affordable, flexible bike share for College Park that launched in May.
For small communities like College Park, it can be hard to implement a bike-share program. The upfront investment often proves too much. But that's changing. As bike shares grow in popularity, cities are discovering alternative ways to deploy and run them. Those programs are a little different than the marquee ones of cities like New York and Washington.
"We learned that there are different approaches to bike share, and that different communities can use bike share in different ways," said College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn. "It's important for cities to think of their individual needs."
That's where companies like Zagster and Social Bikes come in. They cater to smaller towns, universities and corporate clients. Zagster operates 100 programs in 35 states, and its CEO Timothy Ericson says it's seen growth in small cities take off in the last 18 months. One benefit his company offers smaller communities is that it sells bike share as a service. Bike-share agreements vary significantly from city to city. Usually, the government owns or operates part of the service, while private vendors take up the rest. But Zagster owns the bikes, fixes them, moves them when needed and replaces them every three years. It also takes care of the stations and develops the software.
Albuquerque, N.M., a city of more than 550,000, wouldn't have had a bike-sharing system at all without a low-cost model. The system there was initially funded by donations from local businesses.
"That type of [big-city] model just wasn't going to be feasible for our community, because we didn't have millions of dollars to spend on this. We only had thousands," said Valerie Hermanson, a transportation planner from the Mid-Region Council of Governments who helped launch the city's program.
To a less discerning eye, College Park's bike-share network might not look much different than the ones in D.C. and other big cities, which use specially designed bikes that can withstand frequent use on crowded streets and exposure to the weather 365 days of the year. The extra-durable bikes are parked at stations that need electricity and an Internet connection. But College Park's system is different in a couple ways: It has less conspicuous bike racks that are cheaper to build and easier to move. What's more, the most gadgety thing about its Plain Jane bikes is that they are outfitted with GPS, which makes it easier to keep track of them and allows for analysis.
In Albuquerque, for example, administrators assumed that riders would likely stay within a 10-minute ride of the downtown stations, said Hermanson. Thanks to the GPS data, it turned out that cyclists were using the bicycles to travel across the sprawling city. That information helped justify a planned expansion of the system, she said.
Motivate, the company that operates bike-share systems in the Bay Area, Chicago, New York and Washington, acknowledges that its model is designed for high-ridership areas.
"Our sweet spot is a little higher," said spokeswoman Dani Simons. "Just like Aurora, Ill., isn't going to build a New York-style subway system, it's probably not going to have a New York City-style bike-share system either."
Before Zagster or another company will come into a city, though, applicants need to be able to show a clear reason why people would want to use bicycles in their city.
"Bike sharing is working in places people might not consider a good place," he said. "It's really about thinking through that use case: What is the gateway drug to get people onto bike share?"