Mention “bike sharing” in this city, and you’re likely to get a smart-ass comment on the constant looting of beach cruisers hitched to street signs outside rental single houses. And they’re right, in a sense. Historically, Charlestonians are bad bike sharers, but the approach to bike sharing has come a long way since the city’s infamous yellow bikes, which disappeared as quickly as they were put on the streets in 1996. Bike sharing has become a serious component of forward-thinking transportation initiatives amongst bike-friendly communities across the country. And some think Charleston is fertile ground.

The premise around bike sharing is simple. Self-serve stations stocked with a few bikes each are strategically placed over an urban area to create a network of short-distance point-to-point trips that allow a rider to pick up and drop off a bike from any station in the system. Costs vary, but many programs use a flat-rate system of single-day passes ($5-10) or recurring memberships ($30-95 for a year-long pass), with additional charges for longer trips.

You’ve probably heard more about bike share lately with the launch of Citi Bike, which debuted in New York City over Memorial Day weekend with a whopping 6,000 bikes spread among 300 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The scale of Citi Bike certainly dwarfs others, but it’s Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare that has become the model for large-scale implementation in the U.S.

Capital Bikeshare’s 1,650 bikes, spread over the District and surrounding areas at more than 175 stations from Rock Creek Park to Northern Virginia, serve more than 35 square miles. Other programs in Boulder, Miami Beach, San Antonio, Boston, and Chattanooga have also seen success in their early years.

“We wanted to put a large number of cyclists on the street in a short time,” says Philip Pugliese of Outdoor Chattanooga, which operates the city’s 300-bike program. Pugliese says the purpose of the wide roll-out of their program — the largest launch in North America in 2012 — was to change the discussion around bike friendliness and build a program that would help make the case to local leaders for cycling-minded infrastructure improvements. Bike Chattanooga’s 30 stations spread out over 2.5-square miles serve locals and visitors about equally, and Pugliese says the program has stimulated more “bike tourism” in the city. “We’re starting to see cities with these types of [transportation] options are able to attract conventions, meetings, etc.,” he says. Bike Chattanooga, serving the urban core of the 170,000-person city, is probably one of the most comparable-in-scale cities with a major bike sharing program. “I think Charleston would be a great candidate,” Pugliese says.

The case for Charleston is pretty straightforward. The Holy City is a densely populated urban area where cycling is already a popular mode of transportation for short distances. About 10 percent of Charleston commuters already use something other than their cars to get to work, according to the League of American Bicyclists, and a core progressive community of bike advocates are in place — a key consideration, according to a September 2012 Federal Highway Administration report. Speaking about the expansion of transportation options, Tom Bradford says, “We’re seeing an increasing need as people are deciding to find an alternative to cars.” Bradford, the director of bike advocacy group Charleston Moves, says he believes the city is on the right track by taking steps to get more people on bikes.

Charleston is admittedly not anywhere near securing its fleet of bike share stations, but that’s not stopping some people from getting the wheels turning. A new College of Charleston Office of Sustainability program will make eight fully equipped cruiser-style bikes available for checkout for the day by students, faculty, and staff from the Stern Student Center. The program “is intended to provide campus community members access to an alternative to vehicular transportation and to reduce the load of seldom-used bicycles on campus,” the school said in a release.

It may not seem like much, but even informal pilot programs can plant the seeds for a larger initiative. In Spartanburg, what started as a bike lending program became the first bike sharing system in the Southeast. Anne Piacentino, active lifestyles coordinator for Partners for Active Living, which operates Spartanburg B-cycle, says they were initially looking to find a way to instill cycling in the community without people having to buy their own bikes, launching the lending program with donated ones instead. Spartanburg’s system, which started with a dozen bikes and two stations, recently expanded to four stations with the participation of nearby Wofford and Converse Colleges.

Drumming up support for a bike share isn’t a smooth ride on the open roads though. Implementation costs of a major program can climb to an estimated $5,400 per bike, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and carry standard operating costs of up to $200 per bike per month. That’s not to mention the years of research, preparation, and infrastructure adjustments needed before you even start pumping up tires. Charleston’s historic fabric provides an added challenge, but programs in London, D.C., and Boston have shown how to balance bike sharing with preservation priorities.

The idea of bike sharing boosting “bike tourism” isn’t music to everyone’s ears either. “It would be great for the city, but bad for us,” says Affordabike owner Daniel Einhorn. His shop rents about 100 bikes a week for $20 a day, which their website boasts are the “best day rates in town by far.” But even the most expensive bike share systems would undercut Affordabike. “I suppose we could branch out,” Einhorn says. “But it would be a huge inconvenience for us.” He suspects bike sharing would also cut down on sales as students and others opt not to buy their own bikes. “Imagine if the city decided to open a five-star steakhouse that was cheaper than everyone else’s,” Einhorn says.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that as recently as a decade ago, Charleston cyclists and pedestrians couldn’t easily get across the Cooper River Bridge. These days, you can ride across the Ravenel Bridge and down Coleman Boulevard’s new bike lanes clear out to Sullivan’s Island. With more improvements on tap for the next few years, a full-scale bike share program may be a far-off possibility, but we’ve already come a long way.

So what would a Charleston bike sharing system look like?

SIZE: Charleston’s compact urban core and population density is comparable to other medium-scale cities like Chattanooga, Boulder, and San Antonio offering sharing programs. With most U.S. systems operating with a range of 3.5–5 bike share stations per square mile of service area, the peninsula could be adequately served by anywhere from 18-25 stations. That would call for anywhere from 140-200 bikes, with more added for expansion.

COST: Assuming 2012 cost estimates used by bike sharing management company Bixi, capital costs for implementation of a 200-bike system could range between $840,000–$1.08M, with operating costs ranging from $150-200 monthly per bike. Substantial planning and preparation costs would vary.

The Phenomenal Success of Capital Bikeshare from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

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