Campus bike share program could come to University of Iowa

Officials say city has 'a great community of support for bicycling'

A Des Moines B-cycle station with bikes, located at the Brenton Skating Plaza, at 520 Robert D. Ray Dr., in downtown Des Moines. Photo shot on Tuesday afternoon Nov. 12, 2013. (Bill Neibergall/The Register)
A Des Moines B-cycle station with bikes, located at the Brenton Skating Plaza, at 520 Robert D. Ray Dr., in downtown Des Moines. Photo shot on Tuesday afternoon Nov. 12, 2013. (Bill Neibergall/The Register)

Pretty soon, University of Iowa campus commuters might not need to own a bike to use one for quick trips to class, work or anywhere else they want to go.

The university, through its Office of Sustainability, applied in October for a $96,000 grant to implement a “third generation bike share program.” The money would help fund a $120,000 initiative to set up three bike rental stations across campus.

The stations – proposed near eastside student residential housing, by Seamans Center in the central campus area, and by an entrance to the pedestrian mall – each would house 15 docks and 10 bicycles, according to the grant application.

Users could buy annual memberships or swipe credit cards to rent the shared bikes, which officials propose making available by Oct. 30, 2014. B-cycle, a bike sharing system that has launched programs in Des Moines, Madison, Denver and other communities, is among the vendors that could apply to implement the UI program.

Liz Christiansen, director of the UI Office of Sustainability, said she expects to hear back about the grant application in January. If awarded the Iowa Clean Air funds, UI and Iowa City each would pitch in $10,500, and UI Student Government would contribute $3,000.

“The idea is to promote alternative and safe transportation that is good for the community, the campus and the environment,” Christiansen said. “It’s really exciting because it’s a city and university effort.”

In the application, UI officials boast Iowa City’s bicycle-friendly atmosphere, citing its ability to support at least four racing club teams, a recreational cycling club and four locally-owned bike shops.

“Downtown Iowa City and campus are adjacent, making a bike share program attractive for university students, faculty and staff and Iowa City residents,” according to the application.

Providing shared bicycles would help the campus meet its sustainability goals for 2020, which include consuming 40 percent renewable energy, diverting 60 percent of waste and reducing per capita emissions of CO2 from UI-related transportation by 10 percent, officials said in the application.

Other sustainability collaborations between UI and Iowa City include Bus on the Go (BONGO) – a GPS-based real-time passenger information system aimed at increasing bus ridership – and Zipcar, which works much like the bike share system would work by offering car rental service by the hour.

Iowa City also has a “bike library,” which opened in 2004 and maintains an inventory of 200 to 300 bicycles available for checkout for up to six months. Christiansen said the UI’s short-term bike share program would supplement the bike library, which rarely keeps up with the demand.

UISG President Katherine Valde this year listed developing a bike share program on campus as a top priority, and the student government group in September surveyed students about the proposal. Of the students who were surveyed and said they didn’t have a bike, 78.5 percent said they would be very or somewhat likely to use a bike share program, according to the grant application.

Among that same group, 51.6 percent said they would be very or somewhat willing to pay an annual fee of about $40.

In the application, UI officials also cite the 2008 flood – and the ensuing and ongoing construction around town – as justification for the bike share program.

“This level of activity on campus, combined with other major construction projects in the Iowa City area, has meant additional traffic and traffic delays,” according to the application.

B-Cycle’s bike share programs have taken off in other communities using them – the program in Madison, Wis., for example, now offers 350 bikes at 35 stations and charges University of Wisconsin students, faculty and staff $20 for an annual membership.

Although this is the closest UI has come to implementing a bike share program, it’s not the first time the topic has come up. A 2009 editorial in the Daily Iowan, for example, suggested the idea of “bicycle hubs.”

“What if there were a way to get around Iowa City without having to wage battle with thousands of vehicles all vying for one spot?” the editorial board wrote.

If Iowa gets the money to launch phase one of its bike share program, and if it catches on, Christiansen said the goal would be to expand it over time.

“The State of Iowa, but especially Iowa City and the UI campus, just has a great community of support for bicycling,” Christiansen said.

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