It forces people to interact and engage with their city in a way that is impossible to do in a car. —Ben Bolte, GREENbike director for the Downtown Allianc
SALT LAKE CITY — Last April, Ryan Evans hopped on one of Salt Lake City's GREENbikes on his way to work in hopes of saving a little time and doing his part to clean up Utah's air.
After just a few rides he was hooked, logging the most trips in the bike-share program's inaugural year — 407.
"I surprised myself," said Evans, a Draper resident and Salt Lake Chamber employee. "I knew I would like it and I knew and I would use it a lot, but little did I know I would like it that much and get that much usage."
Evans made the bikes part of his daily routine, riding Frontrunner up from Draper and then using GREENbike to pedal between work meetings, lunch and errands he had around town.
"Generally any business appointment I had downtown, I tried to utilize the GREENbike to get there rather than trying to drive, find a parking spot, go to that business appointment and then do it over again," Evans said. "It was a great way to get around, use UTA but then be able to use the bikes downtown."
A successful start
From aficionados like Evans to curious one-timers, 6,100 users biked 26,000 trips in 2013, making GREENbike the most used bike-share program in the country among programs with fewer than 50 stations.
"Really the metrics were just seeing how the public would react to it," said Ben Bolte, GREENbike director for the Downtown Alliance. "That was incredibly important to us that it got political and social buy-in, and people love it."
Riders submitted hundreds of pictures of themselves using GREENbike as they were out on dates, running errands, travelling to meetings and "experiencing the city," Bolte said.
"It forces people to interact and engage with their city in a way that is impossible to do in a car," said Bolte, who gave up his car two years ago to better experience downtown living. The GREENbike program has become part of his everyday life, he said.
The numbers surpass the program's first-year usage goals of 5,500 users taking 25,000 trips, setting a high bar for 2014. In response, seven new stations will be in place by the time the bikes return in April as GREENbike strives to double the number of trips and riders. Locations for the new bike stations haven't yet been announced.
GREENbike, a nonprofit companion to public transit, is a sharing program rather than a rental program, Bolte explained. To support this goal, downtown bike stations are positioned close together where they will reach the most people and can function as a natural extension to TRAX, Frontrunner and busses.
"If you think about it, the first mile and the last mile are the biggest hurdle for public transportation," Bolte said. "The TRAX stop, the bus stop, it's three blocks, five blocks or six blocks from where you are or where you want to be. If you can just hop on one of these bikes that are available 24 hours a day and they're everywhere, you can connect immediately to where your bus is or the (train) is."
For Bolte and his team, managing the GREENbike program is a constant effort as they inspect each bike, which happens every other day; clean the stations; and move bikes around to make sure there is a balance between available bikes and open docking slots at each station.
A lot of work happens in the office, as well, including public engagement campaigns and grant writing to keep GREENbike funded. As much of 30 percent of the program is funded through ridership, while the rest of the cost is covered by sponsorships. The program must expand to 75 stations before it will be self-sufficient.
Plans for the future
The GREENbikes have all been tucked away for the winter, but the team has a lot to do to make sure they are ready for next spring, including full overhauls for the bikes, which were used more than 400 times each since April.
One upgrade coming in 2014 is an expansion to 18 slots at each station, up from 13, Bolte said.
The team will also be crunching all the data collected in 2013.
"Right now it's in analysis mode, so just combing through all the numbers to see: 'OK, what stations got used the most? What were the most popular trips?'" Bolte said.
A survey will be conducted, asking Salt Lake City residents questions like whether they would be more likely to ride if the number of protected bike lanes increased or if they would like to see stations near apartment buildings.
As he pedaled around downtown, Evans became a roving ambassador for the program.
"It was actually a lot of fun how many people would stop me on the GREENbike and ask: 'Hey, what is it? How does it work?'" said Evans, who also took the message to friends, family and co-workers. "I could never give you a number, but lots and lots of people that I know personally either tried it for a day when they were downtown and several people I know went out and bought passes."
Riders can purchase an annual pass for $75 or just pay $5 for 24-hour access. On a 24-hour pass, any bike can be checked out from any station for 30 minutes per trip. After 30 minutes an additional fee kicks in.
About 6,000 day passes were purchased in 2013, while 300 people opted for annual passes. The annual passes are also good for bike-share programs in 15 other cities around the country.
Annual pass holders like Evans are assigned an individual online profile where they can keep track of their mileage, calories burned, emissions saved by not driving and other data. They can also choose, like Evans, to compete on the GREENbike leaderboard.
One of GREENbike's biggest successes so far has been taking some cars off the streets through a smoggy year, Bolte said. GREENbike officials reported the bikes reduced automobile travel by 52,000 miles and kept an estimated 75,000 pounds of carbon out of the air.
"I'd say that our No. 1 concern is air quality," Bolte said. "If everyone makes one or two (bike) trips a day, we are looking pretty as far as air quality and everything else we need in Utah."
Improved air quality was a top motivator for Evans, who works with the Salt Lake Chamber's clean air initiative. Through the year he kept an eye on his GREENbike profile to track the amount of carbon emissions he was preventing.
"You know you're doing your part, but then you get to see that quantified," Evans said. "It's pretty neat to see a true impact of how much of a difference you're making."
Using Frontrunner and GREENbike also saved Evans "several hundred dollars" in gas money, he said.
"It can save you a ton of money if you're one who drives your car all the way downtown just to drive around a little bit once you're in the city," Evans said. "It makes your life a lot less stressful and it's a little bit of fun in your day."