Keeping a bike share program viable can be a challenge. Just look at London’s Barclays Cycle Hire, whose titular sponsor has backed out of continuing its support for the system.
Back in the U.S., advocates in Missouri are doing something a little unusual in their bid to grow and support Kansas City’s B-Cycle program: They hope to crowdfund parts of the system using the home-grown civic platform Neighbor.ly. B-Cycle, which calls itself "the country’s only advocate-owned bike share system," just kicked off simultaneous mini-campaigns, ranging between $50,000 and $250,000, to bring anywhere from one to five stations to 10 different Kansas City neighborhoods.
Sarah Shipley is communications director for BikeWalkKC, the umbrella group that runs B-Cycle. The campaigns’ goal, she says, is more than just raising money. For one thing, it’s to surface the sometimes-challenging mechanics of running a bike share program. For another, it’s to help create a cycling culture in a city that only three years ago was "a no-man’s land for bikes."
To start, the city was broken down into geographic zones. Some zones have already gotten a considerable amount of funding, though others have no money yet. "That’s okay," Shipley says. "Even if it doesn’t get its full amount, we want to give everyone a chance to get the full amount." That doesn’t mean stations won’t get built. "If it doesn’t reach the full amount," she says, "I’m going to work with corporate sponsors. And if we don’t get that, we’ll use some federal funding or some other creative means of financing to get it done." All approved stations will get built during one big construction bout in the spring. (See the planned expansion map below.)
This is, in fact, B-Cycle’s second crowdfunding campaign. The first, held last year, raised more than half of the $700,000 the group sought to sustain existing stations. "We realized that was probably not the best way to do a crowdfunding campaign," Shipley says. "You want to have a goal you can share with an entire group of people. A crowdfunding campaign to sustain something just doesn’t work."
B-Cycle traces its roots back about three years. Shipley, a recent transplant from Washington, D.C. where she worked for a national bike group, kept running into the same few fellow cycling aficionados at meetings around town. They shared a complaint: KC wasn’t welcoming to bikers. It was, she says, a chicken-and-egg problem for the city: "We’re not going to build infrastructure for a city with no riders. But no one is going to ride in a city with no infrastructure. We decided to go first. We needed to do something that changes the face of the entire area."
They settled on bike share, formed BikeWalkKC and approached Blue Cross Blue Shield for initial funding. The company liked the idea, but wanted proof it could work. "Blue Cross Blue Shield was pivotal," Shipley says, "because they professionalized us in a way that we didn’t know we needed. We were a ragtag group of people that had this dream of putting a bike share program on the ground. They made us re-pitch it with modeling, re-pitch it with a business plan, re-pitch it with stats."
Eventually the company was convinced and granted seed funding, the amount of which hasn’t been disclosed. For the guts of the system, now branded "powered by Blue Cross Blue Shield Kansas City," Shipley and her allies partnered with B-Cycle, an outfit led by bicycle company Trek, health care company Humana and advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Additional money would come from the Kauffman Foundation, federal transportation funding and a local museum.
The first 90 B-Cycle bikes were assembled from kits by volunteers working in a warehouse "that reached 102 degrees at one point," Shipley says. They set up a dozen stations in what she describes as the city’s arts and financial districts. Each bike is equipped with GPS, with some of the data going to Blue Cross Blue Shield to figure out the system’s health benefits. Other data get used to figure out where people ride, and thus where future bike infrastructure might go.
One surprise in the first two years of operation, Shipley says, is that the system has been used less for commuting than the group expected, and more by tourists and "empty nesters." According to the data, there were 100,000 trips taken in 2012 and 2013 combined. According to a customer survey, 51 percent of all trips were to a restaurant or bar.
Shipley claims success in nudging Kansas City toward becoming a bikeable city. Last January, she points out, the city council adopted a resolution that both celebrated how B-Cycle can be funded "through a private-public partnership with little or no cost to the City" and pledged that "the City is committed to increasing the number of bicycle lanes along the BikeShareKC route to encourage usage and promote a safe and accessible alternative form of transportation."
One benefit of going the crowdfunding route, Shipley says, "is that I can show people not only what has been funded, but what hasn’t. I can show people where the disparities are." Those nuances can be obscured when a bike share program is seen as the project of one giant corporate sponsor. And that’s easier information to process, she says, when it comes via bite-sized campaigns rather than an overarching system map. She says she’s not surprised that, say, the Plaza Zone has already raised $100,000 while the Jazz District hasn’t raised a penny. She expects that some people will turn to funding other zones once their own has met its goal.
I point out to Shipley that competing for shared resources via digital means has a recent history in Kansas City: It’s how Google figured out how to roll out its Fiber network, by challenging "Fiberhoods" to sign up a critical mass of potential customers. Is this a uniquely Kansas City thing to do? "People are very localized in Kansas City," she says. "They want to build in their community, and it plays off each other. I don’t know if it’s uniquely Kansas City, but it’s pretty Kansas City. We’re competitive."
The strategy here is to give bike sharing a chance in Kansas City by providing the critical mass these programs demand to succeed. "There are a lot of naysayers," Shipley admits. Building the system out at pace, she says, is the foundation needed before it can begin to demonstrate the benefits of Kansas City as a bikeable place. "This is so not about the bike," she says. "This is building a healthy, thriving, active community. When I get these stations down, the city will make its bike lanes. And the density and intensity of active transportation is what you need to get things going."
(Via Rodrigo Davies)
Nancy Scola is a lead writer for the Washington Post’s tech blog, The Switch. Scola’s writing on the intersections of technology and politics has been published by The American Prospect, Capital, Columbia Journalism Review, New York, Reuters, Salon, Science Progress, Seed, and other publications.