by Sam Spence
Next fall, downtown residents may have a new way to pedal their way around the city, and they can forget that U-bolt lock. Later this month, Charleston planning officials say they will issue a request for proposals (RFP), asking groups interested in building and maintaining a city-sanctioned bike sharing program to submit detailed information on what they propose.
City officials are staying tight-lipped about details on what requirements the RFP will lay out, but that hasn't stopped buzz from building around what the Holy City would look like peppered with bike share base stations. The city has been looking at the idea of a bike sharing program for the past three years, Charleston City Planner Philip Overcash says, but interest has really grown over the last year, "I know that there are multiple groups interested in the opportunity for a bike share in Charleston."
Charleston isn't the only place where the idea has taken off. In cities like Washington, D.C. and New York, massive city-wide bike sharing programs are already popular ways of navigating the urban landscape with both tourists and locals. Customers can rent bikes by the day or sign up with a long-term membership. Both options allow riders to pick up and drop off bikes at stations across the city at a set price.
Once the city issues the RFP, Overcash says the city hopes to gather proposals over the next 60 days. As far as scale, funding model, and operational specifics, that's up to the individual applicants.
One local group that says it plans to respond to the RFP is local bike advocacy group Charleston Moves. Don Sparks, the group's founder, says Charleston is a prime candidate for a bike sharing program, "It's a shame we haven't gotten one yet."
Sparks says he knows of as many as four other entities who have also expressed intentions of applying, but like city officials, Charleston Moves isn't saying who else may send back a proposal to the city.
As part of the process of preparing to apply, Sparks says Charleston Moves has conducted focus groups and identified 20 potential sites below the Crosstown Expressway, each of which would hold 10 bikes. Based on the success of the program, the initial 200 bike program could be later scaled out to include additional stations off the peninsula and into North Charleston.
Sparks says he's not discouraged by any friction from preservationists looking to maintain the antebellum charm of the lower peninsula, calling any opposition "a red herring for guys who think Charleston should be buggy whips and hoop skirts."
"I can't imagine it not doing great," says Sparks, "I could easily see 40-50 stations on the peninsula."
Charleston Moves says its initial estimates put the annual cost of implementing and maintaining the 200-bike program at $1.2 million, with expectations that the program will cover its costs in the first year.
"It's not going to be cheap," says Charleston Moves executive director Tom Bradford. Both Bradford and Sparks emphasize that Charleston Moves is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit, and that they're not getting into the program for the cash. If chosen, the group says an independent division would be tasked with the day to day operation of the program, most likely in partnership with a third-party to produce and maintain the system's infrastructure.
"We've got deep roots here, and we're confident that we'll put together a strong proposal, Sparks says. "Whether we do it or not, we're interested in having a strong bike sharing program in Charleston."
In anticipation of the RFP, Bcycle, a national contractor that runs programs in cities from Madison, WI to Spartanburg, S.C., took a trip to Charleston last weekend to demo their system in a parking lot just off lower King Street. Bradford called the reaction to the demos "terrific," and said they were turning excited people away all day who had hoped to take the bikes for a spin, "we had to tell them it was just a demo."
The idea of bike sharing not new to Charleston. An informal "yellow bike" program in 1997 set up bikes around the city for communal use got some traction, but, eventually the bikes began disappearing from the streets. The College of Charleston is also running a pilot program right now where cyclists can check out bikes from the Stern Student Center.
Projections on the project's timeline differ depending on who you ask, but once a proposal is chosen and the details are ironed out, city officials have a realistic goal of having bikes ready to rent this time next year.