Bike Sharing in Alabama

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Birmingham often finds itself at back of the pack when it comes to friendliness to cyclists. In fact, Bicycling magazine named Birmingham as one of the worst cities for cycling in the country in 2010. But a new pair of so-called “bike sharing” programs are trying to encourage residents to hit the streets on two wheels. WBHM intern Dannial Budhwani reports.

Bike sharing is a bit like checking a book out of the library. You go to what’s known as a sharing station. That’s a public place along a sidewalk or square where bikes are kept. There you can borrow a bike, ride it around and then return it to the same or any other station. While this may seem like a new idea, bike sharing actually started in the 1960s as a social experiment in Amsterdam.

Since then, bike sharing has evolved to take advantage of current technology including credit cards and cell phones. Paul DeMaio is a bike sharing consultant. He says new technology makes such programs easier for riders.

“If you have a smartphone, you can use an app to find out where your stations are and find bike trails, bike routes, and bike lanes to get to those stations.

While bike sharing programs are common in Europe and many American cities, they’re just now riding into Alabama. One of the state’s first large scale bike programs is ValloCycle. It started last October in Montevallo as a collaboration between the city and the university there. Students and residents can check out bikes through an annual $25 membership or by pledging 25 hours of community service. ValloCycle spokeswoman Courtney Bennett says organizers hope it has a wide effect.

“The initiative of the program was not only to increase fitness and to make Montevallo a more walkable community but also to outreach to people who can’t afford to have a personal car or can’t even afford to have a bicycle.”

Meanwhile in Birmingham, Alabama Power has started a bike-sharing program for its employees.

Alabama Power employee Nathan Hodge rides around Railroad Park in downtown Birmingham. The self-described bike enthusiast says he likes the chance to relieve stress with fresh air and exercise over the lunch hour. Plus errands by bike are more environmentally friendly than errands by car. And his colleagues?

“There are different reactions. Some people say I’m not gonna get on one of those bikes. You know, it’s kind of goofy. But there are some other folks who are interested in taking one out.”

Alabama Power spokesperson Michael Sznajderman also considers himself a biking enthusiast. He says the company has long had a program to encourage employees not to use their car during the middle of the day. Bike sharing gives employees another way to travel, particularly in the downtown area.

The initial thinking was our corporate headquarters is close to Railroad Park, but not quite close enough that if you wanted to let’s say walk up to the park to have a sandwich for lunch, it’s probably a 10 to 15 minute walk, but if you had a bike, well it’s only about a 5 minute ride. So the first thought was, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to make Railroad Park more accessible to our employees in our building?'”

But the road isn’t always smooth for bike sharing. Consultant Paul DeMaio says funding and political support can be issues, because most bike sharing program are government backed in some form. He adds that people often believe bikes will be vandalized or stolen, but that’s largely not happened. In DeMaio’s hometown of Washington D.C. for instance…

“Just a couple of bikes stolen within about a year-and-a-half out of over 1,400 bikes.”

Bike sharing organizers in Alabama are already thinking about expanding. Leaders of Montevallo’s ValloCycle would like that program to have 200 members by the end of the year. It has about 50 right now. Alabama Power may increase the number of bikes in its program if there is a demand for it.

And if bike sharing does grow, it may help cyclists feel a little more welcome around the Magic City.

~ Dannial Budhwani, May 2, 2012.