© Sam Farley 2017
This article also appears on spectatornews.com.
After years of trying to bring a bike share program to Eau Claire, the work of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student leaders has finally paid off. The Eau Claire City Council unaniminously passed an ordinance Tuesday evening that allows for vendors to operate a dockless bike share program in the city.
“The (UW-Eau Claire) campus has certainly started to be more active in our downtown,” Councilman Jeremy Gragert said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, “so, I think this is the appropriate way to go forward is to an ordinance that allows for a dockless bicycle sharing and really still will be an experiment to see how it works here.”
Debuting this spring, the program will employ a maximum 150 bikes from a single vendor, with the possibility of adding 50 more, should demand call for it. City officials in March will vet potential vendors, after which point the chosen company will likely take several weeks to prepare for set up in the city.
Bike share will be launched sometime in late April or early May, said Austin Northagen, the Student Office of Sustainability director at UW-Eau Claire.
“This market that will benefit the most from this program are university students,” Northagen said. “Because it’s university students that live in a proximity where they can bike not only to the university but downtown.”
Dockless bike share programs have also taken root in other university towns, such as Green Bay and Stevens Point. Both programs launched last summer. Green Bay utilizes LimeBike, while Stevens Point uses Spin.
One difference between docked bike share programs and their dockless counterparts is that the latter offers cheaper rentals. LimeBike, for example, offers a 30-minute rental for $1. Whereas Nice Ride, Minneapolis’ docked bike share vendor, costs $2 per 30-minute rental. Eau Claire’s bike share rental cost won’t be known until a vendor is chosen.
Though the difference between the cost-per-ride may seem insignificant, the difference in infrastructure costs also make dockless systems more appealing to cities and universities who don’t have the funds to bring a docked bike share to their area.
“All that’s needed in the Eau Claire ordinance is that the private company buys a license to operate,” Northagen said. “As long as the company follows the rules of the city and the guidelines of the ordinance, then they won’t be asked to leave.”
How it will work
A dockless system means there won’t be physical stations where bikes are parked and rented. Instead, users will be able to locate bikes via a mobile app and scan a QR code on the bike to unlock it. Once the user is finished with a ride, he or she will be charged on the app and the bike will lock through the back tire. If one attempts to physically move it, an alarm will go off.
Designated parking spots will be located around the city for the bikes so as to not obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic. On the UW-Eau Claire campus, there will be six spots: McIntyre Library, Schneider Hall, Centennial Hall, Hibbard Hall, McPhee Center and Oak Ridge Hall. A painted section of concrete will mark a designated parking spot, Northagen said.
In the city, there will be blocks where users may park the bikes, such as: Owen Park, Carson Park, Phoenix Park, Hobbs Arena, City Hall and more. University parking spots will hold about eight to 10 bikes each, Northagen said.
“I always hear stories of students getting their bike stolen, students losing their bike, breaking their bike, maybe they can’t afford a bike or maybe they want a bike but they don’t see the point of bringing a bike because they have no place to store it, and this kind of answers all those questions,” Northagen said. “Not only is it affordable means of transportation, but it has the ability to adapt to a lot of students needs.”
At 6 a.m. every morning, the bike share company will locate misplaced bikes or unbalanced parking areas and rebalance the system.
Though the freedom of dockless bike share makes it more convenient for users, it also creates opportunities for reckless usage.
“My biggest fear, and a fear that has been on other campuses, is that a student will use one of these bikes to go from campus to where their car is parked in an off-campus neighborhood and then leave the bike in front of a neighborhood house,” Northagen said. “That would hurt the program with the community a lot, and that’s the last thing we want is to take a toll on community relations.”
To educate students and community members on proper usage of the bike share program, Northagen said there will be a website with information about the system. Once a company is chosen and details are sorted out, the website will go live.
In addition, Northagen said he will be working with Integrated Marketing and Communications to create a mass email closer to the program’s launch date.
After the program is launched, it will run until the end of November. From thereon out, the operation date will be from March 1 to Nov. 30.
Getting bike share going
Bringing a bike share program to Eau Claire has been in the works for about four years, Northagen said. Originally, past directors were looking into docked bikeshare systems, which require funding, sponsorships and support from both the university and city.
Securing funding for the system was the biggest barrier to getting bike share set up in the city, Northagen said. Dockless bike share systems remove that barrier, however, as they don’t require any money put forth by the city or the university.
Though it took some time to get going, Northagen believes it was the right amount of time because they needed the right conditions and operations to exist.
“In years past, it’s been restricted to a docked system, where you needed that private owner, you needed city support and you needed business support. So you needed a lot of ducks to follow to go in line,” Northagen said. “But with the dockless system that’s only about a year or two old, it’s had enough time to develop and flourish and find its footing, and now it’s the time when universities start jumping on board and saying, ‘We like this program. We want to bring it here.’”
Aside from the financial barrier, another hurdle was getting university administration and city officials on board with the idea. Northagen coordinated with City Councilmembers Jeremy Gragert, Catherine Emmanuelle and Kate Beaton to share research and solidify a plan to implement a bike share program.
“Certainly, at a minimum, I want to recognize the fact that I think students at UW-Eau Claire have really been the driving force behind this for quite a few years, and obviously have had great allies on the Council and among the staff to explore this over the years too,” Gragert said.
Speaking in favor of the ordinance, City Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said a bike share program can have several positive impacts on the community. Not only would it improve accessibility, but it would also promote wellness and serve as a fun activity.
“If we can look at making riding your bike, taking public transportation as an easy choice,” Emmanuelle said, “I think that we’ll have some longer term successes for the big picture that our community is going (toward).”