Stuck in the middle of downtown and running late, Shawn Wright knew his feet alone would fail to get him to his movie on time.
A quick swipe of his membership card at a solar-powered kiosk and Wright, 40, had his wheels; a sleek, silver Spokies rental bike that he rode the remaining half mile to the Paramount theater, arriving with enough spare time to grab a drink before showtime.
“Spokies is great in a pinch,” Wright said. “I think the program is really an asset to downtown.”
As the spring weather rolls in and more Oklahomans get outside to enjoy the warm temperatures, the 2-year-old Spokies bike program hopes to see an uptick in riders and wants to remind residents of its benefits by offering free service in April.
Across the nation and around the world, more and more cities are turning to similar bike-share programs to give residents a more cost-effective and enviromentally friendly way to commute. Programs in some bigger cities — such as New York City, Washington D.C., and Chicago — have faced a bumpy road due to high costs, frequent vandalism and even software glitches.
Oklahoma City started off relatively small with its program, spending $362,941 to install seven kiosks with 95 bikes around the downtown and Midtown areas in May 2012. The program has seen a steady increase in riders, said Jill DeLozier, marketing coordinator for Downtown Oklahoma City Inc.
Yearly memberships cost $75, a monthly pass is $20 while a day pass will set you back $5. Any ride under 30 minutes is free. For the month of April, Spokies is giving away a free membership to encourage more riders.
The program averages about 1,600 riders a month during the summer and about 1,300 a month during the fall. The numbers drop steeply during the winter to about 250 riders a month. Riders range from tourists wanting a fun way to see downtown, to employees looking for cheaper transportation to their downtown jobs to Thunder fans trying to skirt high parking prices.
“We are so happy that people are catching on to what a great program Spokies is,” DeLozier said. “We are hoping to expand the program in the future to serve more people.”
Oklahoma City is the largest city in the U.S. with a bike-share system not run by a major bike share operator, DeLozier said. Instead, the program is run by Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. and the Oklahoma City Office of Sustainability
Cost is about $85,000 a year
Since its start, Spokies has taken in about $58,000 in memberships and day passes. The upkeep of the bikes and rental stations costs $85,000 a year. Despite the deficit, DeLozier said the program was never billed as a cash cow but more as a public asset.
“Bike-share is becoming a critical part of transportation systems in cities of all sizes,” she said. “Cities that have a bike-share program are viewed as progressive and willing to look at new and innovative ways to tackle old problems.”
Nationwide there are 37 bike-share programs with more than 20,000 bikes, according to the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington-based environmental advocacy group. All 37 programs operate at a loss.
“We feel that bike-share programs should be looked at as an extension to the transportation network,” institute researcher Emily Adams said. “If you look at it as a public good and look at all the benefits versus the cost then we think it’s really worth it.”
Cassi Poor lived in Denver when she first tried that city’s bike-share program. When she saw a similar program was coming to Oklahoma City, she signed up for a membership as soon as it launched.
“Compared to the upkeep of a car, gas, parking and other things, it’s much more affordable,” said Poor, 29, who lives near downtown. “It’s a great amenity, especially with the development of Oklahoma City and for residents to be able to get around.”
The Oklahoma City program has lost 11 bikes to theft and the remaining bikes are starting to show wear and tear from two years worth of use. DeLozier said a recent sponsorship from Blue Cross and Blue Shield has helped with upkeep. But to expand, additional funding will be needed, either from the city or through crowd-funding efforts.
“If we got twice as many bikes as we had now, it would really make an impact,” DeLozier said. “Human-powered transportation could take over downtown.”