If It Can Work There… Auburn Shows That Self-Serve Bike Rentals Can Work
At first blush, the city of Eugene’s decision to launch a self-service bike rental program strikes you as a plan you want to believe in — it’s just so Eugene — but might wind up in the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time category.
First, there’s the fact that Eugene is a far smaller community than most of the places Social Bicycles — the New York-based company that the city has contracted with to provide the bikes, stations and system — works with: for example, Long Beach, N.Y.; Tampa, Fla.; Atlanta; Beverly Hills; Portland; and Krakow, Poland. Eugene can’t muster enough customers to make a bus route to its airport work. What’s to suggest there are enough people willing to take short-term bike trips to sustain the effort?
Second, there’s the high rate of vandalism and theft reported for some similar setups, conjuring visions of spoked wheels protruding from the Mill Race. The initial 30 bikes of the University of Arizona’s Orange Bike Project were stolen and its project was terminated after five months.
And, finally, there’s the idea that bikes are so plentiful around here that few people would seem to have the need to pay money for the short-term use of someone else’s.
But enough “first blush” pessimism. What buoys the belief that Eugene can make this work is learning of the success of a similar program at a place smaller than Eugene: Auburn University, which has a student population slightly larger (27,000) than the University of Oregon (24,125) but whose surrounding-area (65,000) is far smaller than Eugene (159,000).
Since launching its program in March with the same company Eugene is using, Auburn bike renters are on pace to make 100,000 trips in the program’s first year. Starting with 75 bikes, Auburn now has 125.
“We’ve far exceeded my expectations,” says Don Andre, whose idea it was to establish War Eagle Bike Share. He expected perhaps 500 trips a week; Auburn is getting 1,500.
This in a place that, unlike Eugene, is decidedly not bike-friendly. “This is the South, not the Far West,” says Andre. “Our bike lanes aren’t good. The culture for bikes is not strong.”
The self-serve rental system is simple: People reserve a bike on their smart phone, enter a four-digit number on the bike lock to release it and cycle to a hub nearest their destination, where they leave the bike.
Andre attributes Auburn’s success to three things: The bikes themselves — bright orange, school colors (Eugene’s will likely be green or yellow); the simplicity of meeting people’s need to get somewhere in a hurry, usually a one-way trip to class; and the high-tech nature of the operation — trips triggered by smart phones, payment made online, bikes unlocked by pass codes.
At Auburn, not a single bike has been stolen; only two are out of commission, neither because of vandalism. Andre credits the lack of thefts to bikes fitted with GPS chips — “it’s like a video game, I can see where they are at all times” — and to bikes built specifically without the types of parts that thieves like to steal and sell.
Eugene’s system — set to begin in October 2017 — is expected to be larger than Auburn’s: 300 bikes to Auburn’s 125; 35 stations to Auburn’s 14. Not that it would be appropriate to start bragging. Auburn’s success has already been proven, Eugene’s has not. But if self-serve bike rentals can work at a not-so-bike-friendly place such as Auburn, you’d think — and hope — they could work in a place where that form of transportation is much more a way of life.
“We’ve far exceeded my expectations,” says Don Andre, whose idea it was to establish War Eagle Bike Share. He expected perhaps 500 trips a week; Auburn is getting 1,500.”