A new transportation option coming to Birmingham features added technology that planners say puts it among few of its kind worldwide and will make Alabama a base for similar programs in the future.
This fall, the city's first public bike sharing program will go into operation using vendor Bewegen Technologies, Inc., officials with REV Birmingham, the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, the city and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham announced Monday afternoon at Railroad Park.
Birmingham's program will make it the first city in the Western Hemisphere to use "electric-assist" bikes, or those that use electricity to help with pedaling in hilly terrain, according to REV Birmingham.
Bike sharing is a system featuring a network of docking stations where riders can check out bicycles for short periods of time, usually with cards activated through a low-cost subscription service, per-use rates or paid annual memberships.
The idea has grown in popularity among American cities in recent years as a tool for attempting to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality. Estimates are more than 40 bike sharing programs are active in the U.S.
Across the Southeast, cities including Nashville, Chattanooga and Spartanburg, S.C., have programs, as does Montevallo, where the ValloCycle bike sharing program began in 2011.
How it will work
Birmingham began exploring the program in 2013.
A feasibility study found downtown's largely flat topography, wide streets and high concentration of jobs and people make the city a great candidate for bike sharing. Potential vendors made their pitches in January.
REV Birmingham will administer the program. The local bike sharing network will include 400 bikes and 40 kiosks placed throughout central Birmingham.
Among those, there will be 100 electric-pedal bikes. Those bikes were included to lessen barriers to using the system for people not as experienced with hillier areas of the city said Lindsey West, deputy operations director for the planning commission.
Riders can either buy annual memberships or use their credit cards to check out the bikes. Pricing details are in the works, but similar sharing programs have annual memberships between $50 and $100 per person. The Birmingham program would aim for the middle of that range for annual members, organizers said.
Memberships can be purchased through a website for the new program and a mobile app, both of which should go live this summer, according to REV Birmingham.
The pricing structure, along with GPS technology, will encourage riders to truly share bikes and return them, organizers said.
The station locations are being evaluated and include rider input. Sidewalk decals will be placed in areas across the identified region for the program -- roughly downtown from north of the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex toward Southside, and east toward Lakeview.
"If you build a strong system here, you can always tie to it," REV Birmingham CEO David Fleming said of whether the program could expand to other parts of the city.
The decals will feature codes for potential users to text their thoughts on station locations, Fleming said. REV will work with city engineers to locate where the kiosks will go.
Fleming said the goal is to grow membership every year, and the data that will be collected from the GPS-equipped bikes will help determine where growth is happening and what cycling infrastructure is needed.
The city received a $2 million congestion mitigation/air quality, or CMAQ, grant to start the program, which required a 20 percent local match. The City of Birmingham provided the local match.
"This BikeShare system is another forward-thinking program we're implementing in our forward-thinking city," Birmingham Mayor William Bell said in a statement. "It will provide a fun transportation option for our citizens, and for visitors here on business and pleasure."
The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham provided funding for site planning work and beginning operations.
Sustaining the program will rely on user revenue, grants and corporate sponsors. Those sponsors will be announced at a future date.
Taking a brisk Monday afternoon walk through Railroad Park, Harriet Lewis said though she doesn't ride a bike, she thinks the sharing system will be good and convenient for the city.
"A lot of people come to the park and ride ... that way they don't have to carry their bikes here," Lewis said upon hearing of the program. "They already have the trails, so it's a good idea."
Work for Alabama
Bewegen, based in Quebec, was one of the vendors who responded to a request for proposals from the planning commission.
Braunyno Ayotte, marketing and communications advisor with Bewegen, said he noticed when scouting out the city that bike sharing is a perfect fit with Birmingham.
"There's just so much hype to the city, you see that it's vibrant, that it's up and coming and a lot of investment going in," Ayotte said. "To be honest, I wasn't expecting that when I first came to Birmingham. This is a city where bike sharing will work."
The company has committed to building the kiosks for Birmingham's system here in Alabama. The work will be contracted through Alabama suppliers, Ayotte said.
Bewegen also will build in Alabama the kiosks the company would need for systems as it expands to other markets in the U.S., Ayotte said.