Cycling Ahead

Memphis bike share study aims to take concept to the finish line

By Madeline Faber

Unless you've seen the ubiquitous stations in cities like Knoxville and Nashville, it's difficult to imagine how bike sharing could connect Memphis.

Major cities like Chicago and New York City (pictured here) have launched public bike share systems, and that national support is translating into local recognition.

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Tourists and citizens can check out a bike on a per-ride or membership basis and return it to a separate station when they've reached their destination.

By building on a previous city-sponsored study and favorable national trends, bike sharing is more within reach than ever.

In June, Doug Carpenter & Associates launched Explore Bike Share with the goal of getting the necessary research and funding to put bikes for hire on the ground locally. The consulting, advertising and PR firm recently wrapped its first round of community input sessions, which worked to gain insight from Midtown to Orange Mound.

This isn't the first time that bike share discussions have surfaced. A Memphis Bike Share Feasibility Study carried out by Alta Planning + Design for the city of Memphis was the catalyst for Explore Bike Share, Doug Carpenter said. The 2013 study recommended 63 stations with 580 bikes crossing neighborhoods and commercial centers. A version of the plan came in with an $11 million price tag.

"The capital funding requirements needed to get it started were going to exceed really what anybody sort of assumed," said Kyle Wagenschutz, the city’s bikeway and pedestrian program manager. "So, having that recognition following the bike feasibility study, we didn't really move too much further forward given the other kinds of financial issues that the city was dealing with at the time and continues to deal with today."

Since the study was published, national trends have been moving in favor of bike sharing. Major cities like Chicago and New York City have launched public bike share systems and that national support is translating into local recognition through efforts like the Mid-South Regional Greenprint & Sustainability Plan and the University of Memphis' campus bike share program.

Years after the study's publication, Doug Carpenter has stepped up to carry the baton. The initial study's main goal was uncovering if such a program is possible. Carpenter is aiming to take it to the finish line by determining the most productive operating entity, establishing a relationship with a manufacturer, creating the financial pro forma and launch timeline and listening to Memphians' input on finding a system that would be high-use and sustainable.

"Instead of building on something that an outside-of-the market bicycle share consultant would recommend for us, we thought it was worthwhile to expend the energy and the time and the money to make a commitment to do more pre-work on our part," Carpenter said.

Both parties agree that a government entity is not a solution, but a public and private partnership could be the key to making bike share a reality. Wagenschutz started talking with Carpenter's office last summer and is part of the Explore Bike Share's planning team. He said that the group's initiative is more "robust" than the initial study and works in marginal communities that the feasibility study didn't recognize.

A major difference between the two initiatives is an emphasis on community input. Wagenschutz organized a few open meetings to get the word out, but he admits that the feasibility study lacked a public element incorporating how people would best use a bike share program. The initial study was more focused on ensuring the program would thrive in a high-density coverage area.

Between 10 and 30 people attended each of Explore Bike Share's seven public meetings, Carpenter said. A survey released last month already has more than 150 responses, and a second survey specifically focused on usage will be released in the coming weeks. The qualitative data gained will help frame understandings of membership and sponsorship interest.

"Once (those who attended the public meetings) understood what bike sharing was, they became incredibly engaged in how it could affect their daily lives, what it means to their community and what it means to them personally," Carpenter said.

Additionally, his team recognizes a need for an education component, such as teaching constituents how to rent or ride a bike, if Explore Bike Share enters the implementation phase.

A major component of the 2013 study was rolling out bikes in three phases beginning in the Central Business Improvement District and the Medical District and expanding out into Midtown and the University District. Carpenter's proposed plan will not be multi-phased and will instead focus on a network that "actually connects the city together rather than being isolated in one area," he added.

While not a focus of the 2013 study, his initiative aims to complement the Greater Memphis Greenline and Wolf River Greenway.

While the funding structure is yet to be determined, Carpenter is dedicated to providing a cash-only option for Memphians without credit cards or smart phones.

"We are comfortable that we could, if we had the funding, roll out bike share and people would enjoy it,” he said. “We're trying to really respond and seek out Memphians because we know we're such a different market and we like being different from other markets.”