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Bike share is an innovative transportation program, whereby system subscribers have access to bicycles through self-service kiosk locations around the community. The system is accessed through low-cost subscriptions ranging from a few dollars for one-day to annual memberships that generally cost less than a bicycle tune-up.

Bike share is ideal for short distance point-to-point trips providing subscribers access to bicycles at any self-serve bike station to use and return to any bike station within the system’s service area. Most existing systems allow subscribers to make as many trips as often as they like without additional charge provided they return the bicycles to a system station within 30 to 60 minutes. Operators generally begin to charge gradually increasing fees after this free period to discourage users from holding onto the bicycles when they are not being used, encouraging turnover and ensuring that bicycles are readily available for other system subscribers. In cities across the US, bike sharing systems have proven very popular and successful by giving residents and visitors alike a fast, affordable, easy to use transportation option that can make getting around town fun.

Characteristics of a bike share program:

  • U.S. operators record the average ride at 15 to 20 minutes and between one-to-three miles long.
  • The bicycle can be returned to any number of self-serve bike sharing stations, including the original checkout location.
  • Generally, the bicycles are one style and easy to operate with simple components and adjustable seats.
  • The rental transaction is fully automated and there is no need for on-site staff
The history of bike sharing implementation can be traced through three generations:

  1. Free Bike Programs: The free bikes generation started in the 1960s in Amsterdam with the implementation of the White Bikes program which offered distinctly colored, free unlocked bicycles throughout the city. Unfortunately, due to a variety of issues, including theft and damages to the bicycles, the bike plan failed soon after its launch.
  2. Coin Deposit Systems: Coin deposit systems started in the 1970-80s and offered bikes for hire through designated docking stations containing coin slots and small deposit boxes which reimbursed the coins when the bicycles were returned. Although the deposit boxes increased the chances for success of the programs, the programs were still vulnerable to theft and vandalism due to their lack of user accountability and low deposits (which did not guarantee that the bikes would be returned).
  3. Automated self-serve kiosks: The third generation of bike share programs promoted the use of bicycles using automated self-service kiosks at every station. These systems have also required a higher level of accountability for the user (through the credit card requirement) as well as robust bicycle re-distribution programs that respond to user patterns and demand. Furthermore, third generation systems have included physically distinct bicycles, advanced radio frequency identification (RFID) technology (i.e. Smartcards, magnetic fobs, etc.) and specialized wireless technology that give users the ability to check out a bike whenever and wherever they find a stocked bike station. Some of the current third generation systems now include GPS technology which allows the tracking of real time ridership patterns which provide useful data for planning and redistribution purposes.
Bike sharing systems have evolved as a means to make bicycle travel in urban areas available to a wider range of people. A bike sharing service makes both spontaneous and planned urban trips possible by bike and can be an ideal complement to transit trips as it provides first mile and last mile connections. This section provides a short summary of some of the economic, transportation/mobility, environmental and health benefits of bike sharing.

Bike sharing is a relatively inexpensive and quick to implement urban transportation option compared to other transportation modes. In cities with existing bike sharing programs, the relative costs of launching and implementing a bike share system have been considerably less than investments in other modes. For users, bike sharing has been known to reduce the personal cost of urban transportation. Jurisdictions have also benefited from the flexibility of bicycle sharing programs as they can be installed and open for business in months rather than years.

Previous research on funding for bike sharing programs has indicated that U.S. jurisdictions have allocated only a small part of funding from their local funds to use in bike sharing implementation. To date, a high proportion of the total funding allocated for existing programs has come through state and federal grants, reducing the local contributions to a minimum. Additional forms of funding have included private donations, corporate sponsorships and user revenues. Existing U.S. bike share programs have also had a very positive “farebox recovery” (i.e. costs vs revenues), compared to other modes of transportation (i.e. bus, rail), relying less on local subsidies and funding. For example Boulder, CO, a city that has implemented a small system (23 bike share stations) farebox recovery has hovered around 30 to 40%. This compares to Capital Bikeshare in the Washington D.C. area where the farebox recovery is around 90%. In those jurisdictions where cost recovery is not a high, jurisdictions have leveraged their partnerships and sponsorship agreements with various organizations to maintain an optimum level of service.

As mentioned above, the cost of utilizing bike share for users can be very low. This cost usually only includes the membership fee (typically between $50 and $100 per year), and ridership fees which may be free if the user utilizes the bicycle within the free period. This compares to the costs of running and maintaining a car which are around $7,000 – $10,000 per year.

The implementation of a bike share program also has the potential to bring economic development and increased economic activity to cities. Recent studies indicated that there has been increased economic activity associated with Nice Ride bike sharing stations and increased accessibility to business transactions. Positive attitude towards bike sharing by local businesses has also been observed, as there has been an increase of economic activity with businesses located with close proximity to bike sharing stations. This same phenomenon has been present in Miami Beach, where around 80% of Deco Bike users were more likely to patronize a business with a bike share station close-by.

Bike share can provide one of the most affordable public transport options. As bike share represents an additional mobility option providing last mile connections to and from transit, existing programs have reported an increase in the number of transit users. Bike share has also improved connectivity to different parts of the city where transit did not reach (64% of Capital Bikeshare survey respondents reported that they would not have otherwise made the trip if bike share was not available) and has created increased demand for bicycling while helping decrease the number of personal vehicle trips. Bike share can also help introduce people to cycling as a mode of transportation and to people who don’t usually ride. In Minneapolis for example, approximately one-third of system users cycled less than once per month before signing up with Nice Ride.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of sedentary and obese American adults and children. It has been well-documented that engaging in light to moderate physical activity reduces the risk heart disease, stroke, and other chronic and life-threatening illnesses. Physical activity can also improve mental health and even lower health care costs. Throughout many existing programs in the US including Nice Ride MN, Bcycle Kansas City, San Antonio B-cycle and Denver B-Cycle, the health benefits component has attracted interest from the health care industry, in particular health care providers which have become major sponsors for each of the programs.
Bike share programs have environmental benefits due to auto trips avoided and also have a minimal environmental footprint. As many bike sharing stations tend to be solar powered, bike sharing offers a transportation alternative that is virtually carbon neutral. Additionally, bike sharing programs have been known to cause a shift in the transportation mode utilized by private individuals, therefore decreasing CO2 emissions. For example Denver B-cycle reported helping avoid 729,783 lbs of CO2 in 2011.
Existing U.S. bike share programs have reported very low crash rates compared to crashes among bicyclists riding their personal bikes. For example, as of March 2012, the largest systems in the U.S. (i.e. Capital Bikeshare, Nice Ride and Deco Bike) only reported 16 crashes overall with no fatalities or major incidents. When compared to the number of rides by the three systems in the same period (around 2.5 million) the accident rate is lower than 0.05%, which again is lower than the injury rate. Some of the factors contributing to this safety record include:

  • Heavier bicycles with more robust tires and gearing causing riders to go at slower speeds
  • Drum brakes in most bikes which make slowing a bicycle easy and efficient
  • Integrated flashing lights in every bike
  • Safety in numbers effect and increase driver awareness
  • Design of the bicycle which comes with low step over height and make it easier for the user to regain their balance quickly.
  • Regular bicycle inspections by the bike share program operator
Bike share has become a key aspect of any community thinking about their future plans for cycling. However, understanding how to think about bike share in the context of the community, and considering implementation challenges is an important part of evaluating whether a bike share program is right for Chapel Hill and UNC-CH. Successful programs offer a wide service area with little restriction about where bike trips may start and end. Because of this, it is recommended that bike share be studied in tandem by UNC-CH and the Town.

There are many ways that UNC-CH and the Town can undertake a detailed evaluation of bike share. Each has met with successes and challenge in different cities:

  • Informal evaluation – Some communities choose to do an internal qualitative assessment to assess bike share. It may have some aspects of a feasibility study, such as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or policy analysis, and some included a Request for Information (RFI) to get input from the industry prior to undertaking an official procurement process. Examples of communities that have followed this path are Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, Des Moines, Fort Lauderdale, Denver and others. Many of these cities were early adopters of bike share, so a feasibility study at that time would not have had much data to back its conclusions.
  • Feasibility study performed by staff – Some communities have used their own internal resources to undertake a formal feasibility study, or a local nonprofit
    has undertaken and published the study. Examples of communities that have followed this path are New York City, Minneapolis and New Orleans.
  • Feasibility study performed by consulting company – Many communities more recently have chosen to undertake a formal feasibility study to evaluate all aspects of bike share feasibility, business modeling and implementation. This document may sometimes be used as a confirmation in writing for politicians as a city is in procurement or implementation mode. Examples of communities that have undertaken this path are Philadelphia, Seattle, Cincinnati, Memphis, Cleveland, Birmingham, Frederick (Maryland), and Raleigh is currently working on one.

Whatever path is chosen there are many factors that should be considered with regard to feasibility and implementation of a bike share program.

To assess the feasibility of bike share for Chapel Hill and UNC-CH, the first step is to evaluate current conditions in the area. These conditions can roughly be characterized in the categories described below. Typically, GIS data for all these factors are overlaid to create a bike share demand analysis, which yields the area, size and potential phasing of a bike share system.

Geography, climate and land use

Larger scale geography can have an impact on the success or lack thereof of a bike share system. In general, areas that are relatively flat, don’t have extreme climate and have a mix of land uses are more prone to hosting a successful bike share system.

Demographics and employment

Bike share demand is probably most strongly influenced by the density and mix of land uses. This density and land use in turn impacts the demographics of the area. Some quantitative items that should be analyzed when considering bike share are population density, age, gender and income distribution and employment density.

Bicycle infrastructure

Different communities have taken different approaches to the development of bicycle infrastructure – bike lanes, trails, cycle tracks, parking – in relation to the development of a bike share program. Most cities have developed them in parallel. They make improvements during the sometimes long process of procuring and contracting a bike share program, and then continue development after the program has launched and demand for better facilities increases. It is sometimes necessary to use bike share to spark infrastructure development. Nevertheless, analysis of the current state of bicycle infrastructure is important when considering bike share.

Public transit

Bike share is a great complement to an existing public transit system, and can help attract riders to the system by providing a “last mile” solution. Evaluation of the public transit options for a community and potential synergies between public transit are parameters that can help predict the success of a bike share system.

Policies, plans and regulations

A review should be undertaken of current local policies, plans and regulations to evaluate whether there are any hidden issues that may cause difficulties in bike share implementation. Such policies can include helmet laws, permitting processes for stations, outdoor advertising current contracts, restrictions and regulations, and plans that may have laid groundwork for implementation to make the political aspect of bike share smoother.

An agency or organization must ultimately take action and responsibility for implementing a system. This may be a Department of Transportation, an existing non-profit, a regional planning agency or a newly-created nonprofit organization. A feasibility assessment should undertake an evaluation of the community to recommend an implementing organization that has the desire and the capacity to take on such a responsibility.
During a feasibility analysis, most communities do some initial outreach to the general public both to educate and to gauge interest in a bike share program. The public outreach includes a general project website with information and resources, a survey and a crowdsourcing map so that people can input desired bike share locations. In addition, at least one public meeting is held to both receive comments, receive input on station locations and educate. This input should be used in assessing a community’s readiness for bike share.
In every community, there are many stakeholders that should have a voice from the very beginning in the sculpting of a bike share system. It is important to engage early them to gauge their interest and/or resistance. These stakeholders may be potential funders, regional partners, real estate owners, institutions or others. Some examples are:

  • Potential title and/or station sponsors
  • Regional neighboring communities
  • Employers
  • Colleges and universities
  • Hospitals
  • Foundations
  • Transit agencies
  • Regional planning organizations
  • Cycling or transportation advocacy organizations
  • Large real estate owners
  • Business improvement districts
  • Other internal agencies such as planning, preservation, parks and police

During the feasibility process, input from these stakeholders should be solicited. When it comes time for implementation, they will already be familiar with the program and will be prepared to act as necessary. They will also help to identify any potential issues or obstacles that may exist.

Using the data collected in the Existing Conditions phase, a GIS analysis should be undertaken to determine the system area, station density, system size and potential phasing. The demand analysis will be the basis for the business and implementation plan should feasibility be determined.
The funding environment must be assessed to understand the potential availability of public (federal, state, city), private (sponsorship, advertising) or other (foundation, institutional or other) funds that may be available to fund a bike share system.
Using all of the above data, it should be determined whether a bike share system is feasible in the UNC-CH/Chapel Hill area. Should the assessment be positive, then this study will be the basis for the business planning and implementation aspects of the system. Similar to the feasibility phase, different communities have chosen to do this in different ways, ranging from informal to delivery of a written business plan. Following are aspects that must be considered in business planning and implementation in all communities:

When creating the business plan and funding structures, there are many points of decision. Therefore, to guide a community in short- and long-term decision making, it is very important to define the goals and objectives for the system from the beginning. These goals may include social equity, financial sustainability, ridership, profitability, or other priorities to be defined during this process. Defining the expected goals by the various stakeholders will help inform the discussion and recommendations for a potential business and operational model for a bike share system.
The impacts of a bike share system can also be evaluated and quantified – environmental , health, economic, mode shift. Establishing goals and quantifiable impacts will yield a “measuring stick” for evaluation once a system is launched.
The core of a business plan is to give a community the costs for capital, installation and operating a bike share system over a certain period of time, as well as anticipated revenues for the system. These revenues and expenses are based on the demand analysis, and create the basis for the fundraising goal for either the agency or contractor. These costs should be based on current industry standards for all aspects of the system, as well as account for administration, evaluation and upkeep of the system.
The business plan and the governance structure are intimately related, and a recommendation for governance structure should be based on the initial evaluation of organizational capacity in the community to administrate a system. Governance structures can be city-owned and operated, city-owned and contractor-operated, non-profit owned and operated, regional authority owned or operated, or others. The goals of the system will also dictate the governance structure – if profitability/financial independence are a major goal, then the structure would be different from a system whose major goal it is to promote ridership and social equity.
Other items are important to be aware of when considering a bike share system.


The industry is still new and changing very rapidly. Most systems in the US are solar, wireless and station-based. However, there is some new stationless technology that may be interesting for smaller communities. Although the final technology chosen will not be established until a procurement process is undertaken, it is very important that communities become familiar with the different technologies and advantages and disadvantages to each.

Station siting and permitting issues

No matter how many stations, two or 200, introducing bike share into a community is difficult. Permitting bike share stations does not fit into the usual types of permits that agencies give out. There are many potential issues that may come up, from historical districts to sponsorship/advertising to taking parking spaces to safety and emergency issues. Therefore, it is important for a community to deeply understand the process that will be undertaken prior to implementation so as not to introduce unforeseen delays in system launch.

System branding

Branding a system can be a fun and challenging process. It will be guided by stakeholders who are investing in the system, either financial or otherwise, and be raised up to the highest leadership in a community. Branding includes the name of the system (which may include a title sponsor), color scheme for the system, design of the bike, kiosk and other aspects of the system. Again, it is important for the community to understand what agencies and/or people will have an influence (and veto power) on system branding prior to implementation, so as not to introduce unforeseen delays in system launch.


Although the safety record of bike share systems is very strong to date, different cities have adopted different best practices with regard to endorsement of safe cycling practices, including language and signage recommending helmet use for bike share riders. A community should evaluate what level of communication is required for a bike share system, and make sure it is integrated into all aspects of the system – the bicycle, the kiosks, the website, public relations and all other communications.

Social equity

Bike share is the most affordable means of public transportation and a huge opportunity to bring active transportation to communities that are often challenged with public health issues. However, no bike share systems to date have significant uptake in lower income communities. Therefore, if social equity is a central goal of the bike share system, a community must identify that early on in the goals establishment of the system, and take active steps towards implementation. These steps include allocating budget for communication and marketing, personnel to provide active outreach into different communities, station siting to make sure there is an equitable distribution of stations in all communities, programs to offer affordable memberships and other strategies.

The above section outlines considerations for any community evaluating and implementing bike share. There are many issues specific to the Chapel Hill and UNC-CH area which must also be considered.

As part of the Bike Plan online survey, responses were elicited regarding Tar Heel Bikes, the existing bike share system on the UNC-CH campus, as well as the potential of a larger bike share.

Tar Heel Bikes has had a limited audience in its first pilot year. The system serves undergraduate residents of Craige, Ehringhaus, Hinton James and Morrison Residence Halls. The survey did not ask for their place of residence, so we cannot identify respondents who are within the target Tar Heel Bikes audience, but we can identify undergraduate respondents who may be part of the target audience.

Following are the main points of the responses:

  • 36% of undergraduates and 12% of other UNC-CH affiliates were aware of the Tar Heel Bikes program
  • About 50% of respondents said they would use a larger bike sharing program that included UNC-CH and Chapel Hill, or one that also included Carrboro
  • Only 25% of respondents said they would use a system that also included Durham, Raleigh and Research Triangle Park
  • Some input as to potential improvements for Tar Heel Bikes was:
    • The opportunity for one-way trips
    • Increased awareness and publicity about it
    • More bikes and locations, not just South Campus
    • Design of bicycles – inability to adjust seat, odd handlebars, many bikes under repair

Following are a summary of responses from people from the Town of Chapel Hill:

  • 12% said a bike sharing program would cause them to bike more often (compared to 84% saying bike lanes would have that impact)
  • 30 to 40% of people said they would use a bike sharing program covering UNC-CH, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Raleigh and Durham. There was a slightly lower number who responded positively to the Raleigh and Durham addition (29%), than UNC-CH/Chapel Hill/ Carrboro (40%)

As a summary, there is openness to a larger bike share program in spite of low campus-wide awareness of the existing program. Survey results are not convincing that a bike share program would cause a big change in mode shift towards bicycling. It must be noted that bike share is a unique opportunity to convert people to cycling, as has been shown in many cities. It is difficult for survey respondents to answer accurately to something they do not know. In other cities, bike share has not yet caused a large mode shift, but has worked to convert non-cyclists to cyclists and to change societal attitudes towards cycling.

The Triangle area presents a particular challenge when it comes to establishing a region-wide bike share system because of the many towns and large institutions in the area with different decision-making bodies. Isolated to Chapel Hill, it is clear that for a system to be truly effective requires an organizational setup and collaboration between the Town and UNC-CH. The types of collaboration required include:

  • Establishing common goals for the system
  • Tapping or establishing a governing organization
  • Funding a system
  • Procuring a system
  • Naming and branding a system
  • Establishing a decision-making structure so that each stakeholder has a fair say
  • Potentially establishing revenue- and cost-sharing between the different stakeholders

This list shows that the collaboration and ongoing relationship is a close one. It is possible to establish a new nonprofit that has board representation of stakeholders to undertake such tasks, and that is one of the governance structures that should be considered.

However, the potential exists in the Triangle region for a larger system that includes Raleigh, Durham, NC State, Duke and Research Triangle Park, at a minimum. Such a regional system would not necessarily involve people who ride between the towns/cities, but would more likely involve a common key for commuters between these cities.

Such a system could be a unique and large system that could have benefits throughout the region and could even be a model established of national import. Implementation with multiple large stakeholders, however, can be challenging, with establishing the appropriate governance structure agreed on by all parties the biggest challenge. The City of Raleigh is undertaking a feasibility study of bike sharing in early 2014.

Hills on campus and throughout Town present some potential issues for bike sharing. However, there are many cities with hills who have successfully implemented systems. Bikes tend to “pool” at the bottom of hills in these systems with a greater number of users taking advantage of the system to make a downhill trip than up. The rebalancing operations of a bike share system in a hilly location can thus be more extensive than a flat one. Because of the topography of Chapel Hill, rebalancing should be taken into account as part of the business plan.

Topography can also impact the choice of bicycle for the system. Chattanooga has dealt with topography through having bicycles with more gears than a standard bike share bicycle to accommodate the hills in that city.