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Status of the sharing economy: Bike-share programs make headway

From left, David Bell, Bill Kirk, Tim Kelly, and Jay Niewiek.

It's here, it's on the rise, and even Hillary has an opinion on it. It's the sharing economy, and it's changing the way people commute to work, stay in new cities, and grab a ride home from the bar. Wonder about the state of the sharing economy in West Michigan? Read on for a look at new bike-share programs coming to town in the first of a three-part Rapid Growth series.
Grand Rapids is part of the new sharing economy, and as downtown continues to develop, biking is no exception. With nonprofits such as the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition working toward increased bike lanes and The Spoke Folks providing access to bicycles for all, GR residents are supported by bike-loving organizations. Add on the numerous biking events that take place in the city—MSU Gran Fondo, Brewery Vivant's Fly to the Coq and the Herman Miller Brickyard Criterium—and cyclists are surely welcomed with open arms on the road.
In order to ensure that biking is a safe and reliable mode of transportation for all, two organizations are exploring new methods of bike sharing for city residents, one launching in a few weeks and the other still in development. Grand Rapidians are sure to benefit from these low-cost and convenient transportation options.

"Everyone is very interested in getting something up and running in GR," says Bill Kirk, mobility manager at Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. (DGRI). With the bike share buzz enveloping cities like Chicago and Philadelphia and now reaching West Michigan, DGRI sought to include the development of a formal bike sharing program in GR Forward, the city's comprehensive master plan.
"We always knew that transportation would be a major component," says Tim Kelly, DGRI's planning manager. Together, Kirk, Kelly and their team identified the goal of increased cycling in the city based on public opinion from various community outreach efforts and surveys. In short, residents say they want more protected bike lanes and more modes of transportation.

"We just want to make everything easier and give people options," says Kelly. Considering GR Forward's recommendation for electric bikes—a type of motorized bicycle that gives you a boost when you need it—Kelly and Kirk are still considering the exact type of bike and company that will work for the 30-40 automated bike stations and the 300-400 bikes that the city will require for the program's operation. Mostly payable by credit card, Kelly and Kirk are also exploring the option of year-long memberships purchasable at nearby libraries in order to make the kiosks accessible for those seeking alternative payment methods.
In addition to providing a low-cost transportation option, Kirk notes the many benefits of the program, including health and wellness, an economic boost in retail near kiosks, easing the downtown commute and decreasing traffic congestion. "Every person on a bike-share bike is one less person in a car," says Kirk. DGRI hopes to launch their program in the summer of 2017.

Launching in just a few weeks, another bike-share program will test the market on a much smaller scale. The Spoke Folks, a local nonprofit organization that supports cyclists through maintenance, education and refurbished bikes, is spearheading a feasibility study with just 65 bikes and no kiosks. Based on the app Spokefly, the program will allow users to find nearby bikes, make a payment, "unlock" the chosen bike by providing the combination to its lock, and end in their ride in any location in the city. "You can put these bikes anywhere you'd land a regular bike," says Spoke Folks' Executive Director Jay Niewiek, noting that the app allows users to simply park bikes at existing racks anywhere from parks to local businesses.

Area Spokefly founders David Bell, right, and Jay Niewiek, left.At just $1 to ride plus 15 cents per minute, Spokefly will accept credit card payments without placing a hold on your card like other cities' programs. With the goal of "making sure everyone in GR has access to a safe and reliable bicycle," The Spoke Folks are pursuing their bike-share program as another medium in which to teach that the bicycle is an effective mode of transportation. Though it's starting out small, the Spokefly app will allow for Niewiek and company to collect useful data such as number of users and preferred neighborhoods in order to lay the foundation for an increase to 400 bikes in the summer of 2016. Most of all, Niewiek views the program as a way of "integrating cycling into everyday life."

As Grand Rapids becomes more bicycle-friendly, local organizations are meeting cyclists on the road with infrastructure support that boosts this unique economy-share. Whether by kiosk or app, credit card or annual membership, commuters, visitors, dedicated cyclists and leisurely riders will soon find a variety of options at their fingertips as bike sharing becomes a reality in the city.

Photography by Adam Bird
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