Bike-share programs are exploding in popularity, but they are expensive to build, operate and maintain. Witness the bankruptcy filing, announced this week, of Bixi, the bike share design and technology company behind major programs in New York, London, and Montreal.
A much smaller bike-share program in Kansas City—a city that only six years ago was ranked dead last for two-wheeled commuting by the US. Census Bureau—is taking a very different grassroots approach to expanding its bike share infrastructure.
In mid-January, BikeWalkKC, the local nonprofit that runs the "B-Cycle" bike-share program, launched to build new stations (at about $50,000 a station) in each of the city’s 10 zones. If they are all funded, this would be a major expansion from the scope of the city’s current program that, at 12 stations and 90 bicycles, live mostly in the city’s downtown and don’t connect residential neighborhoods. An MIT researcher studying the effort says it’s probably the largest civic crowdfunding effort ever attempted.
This isn’t the first time BikeWalkKC is trying the crowdfunding idea. The initial stations were built with a mix of private money from individuals and local companies as well as volunteers donating time and effort. This time around, the group did get some federal money from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, but it's trying to match those funds in each zone with donations from hyperlocal individuals, small businesses, and large employers. In return, funders can get a bike share membership, or T-shirts and stickers.
There are plenty of benefits to the grassroots approach, says BikeWalkKC communications director Sarah Shipley. "Some of these, we probably we won’t raise the goal, but we want to show people that this how we have to do it," she says. "We want to be very transparent in what it takes to make these things work."
Other cities take different approaches to funding new stations. In New York, for example, Citibank sponsored many of the initial (and some of the ongoing) capital costs of the new Citibike program launched last year, and has its corporate logo emblazoned all over the vehicles. The B-Cycle program does have a partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield Kansas City, but that’s only one slice of the total.
"We would love to have that immediate support. But think about what happens if Citibank goes away? I mean that’s terrifying. In this way, everyone has a little piece of the pie. It might not be the best model, but it’s the model that we’re trying," says Shipley.
The campaign is still in its early days, and only a few of the city’s zones have much support (and those that do, much of that total includes the federal government grants). "When all of this is over, when we have our bike-share system, we’ll have worked for this as a community," Shipley says. The effort also helps with related transportation advocacy efforts. "This is tool for us to do advocacy in the city. A very expensive tool but a tool nonetheless."