The behind-the- scenes story of Salt Lake’s downtown bike share program.
You may have seen them before, those green bikes parked on the long racks downtown, peddled by tourists toting cameras or men and women in business suits. Those green bikes are part of our local bike share program. Here are some things you may not already know about them:
Inspired by the White bike share in Amsterdam and France
Bike share started in Europe. The first bike share was launched in Amsterdam in 1965 but it failed when most of the bikes were lost—some were found in the city’s canals. In the 1970s, progressive university towns such as Madison, Wisconsin had spray-painted fat-tired beater bikes all over downtown and campus. Now, smart bike share systems are becoming a thing in cities around the globe.
On the bike-sharing world map, Salt Lake is marked proudly with a bike symbol. “We’re the only ride share in Utah,” says Anna Loughridge, GREENbike communications & resolutions coordinator. Other Utah cities are interested in being on the map, too.
“They’re asking us for advice,” Cameron Arellano, the program’s operations manager, says. “I tell them, hey, before you put any bikes out there, have an operations team. Many cities, it seems, think they can just throw the bikes out into the system and it’ll be fine, that everything will balance itself out.” But Arellano knows first hand that’s not the case, having started on the team at the very beginning in 2013 as a “rebalancer” (aka “tech 1”) driving bikes back and forth from full stations to empty ones. “Have a plan,” he says.
The founder was not a “bike person”
Before GREENbike, Ben Bolte was a car guy (“I had a Mustang,” he told me). Bolte had worked at Mayor Becker’s office before moving over to the transportation division. The poli sci and business major wasn’t thinking much about bikes until he went to a demo about bike shares at Library Square.
“It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” he says. So he spoke with the Mayor who told him to find someone to research it. “I was like, ‘Let me, please!’ ”
Bolte learned about running a non-profit, about fundraising, about every aspect of the business from the ground up. He was told to write an RFP and had to Google what that was (request for proposal). The project needed a title sponsor, the branding, vendors, a pricing structure. The bikes had to be designed. The stations had to be planned out. Bolte dug in.
Why are GREENbikes green?
In 2012, when Bolte started researching this dream, there were only a handful of bike share bike vendors. “[The one we chose] was in the most cities at a national level. The company was a subsidiary of Trek bicycle company.”
I honestly thought he said Shrek, but I was corrected. “No, not Shrek. These are made by the company that makes road bikes and mountain bikes, everything else…by Gary Fisher.” I was pretty sure he’d said Carrie Fisher, but I kept my mouth closed. As you can guess, I am not a “bike person.”
According to my Wikipedia source, “Gary Fisher is considered one of the inventors of the modern mountain bike. He started competing in road and track races at age 12. In 1968 he was suspended because officials said his hair was too long.” So, if Shrek didn’t choose the color of the bikes, who did? According to Bolte we have SelectHealth, the bike program’s primary financial sponsor, to thank for that eye-catching green.
Bolte sold his car in 2013 and moved downtown. He’s been using GREENbikes, public transit, Uber or Lyft, and walking ever since and the GREENbike system has been expanding—by about 419% since it launched in 2013. That first year, says Bolte (he knows all of these statistics by memory), the program had 25,000 rides. The year after that, annual ridership almost doubled. Then it jumped to 106,000 in 2015. Last year, they had 141,000 rides in about nine months, “which is pretty good,” says Bolte. “We saw the number of people who buy the annual passes increase by 102%. And total ridership overall increased by 33%.”
There are now 33 stations. This is the first year they didn’t expand. But they do have plans, big plans, to expand in the next couple years.
Who rides GREENbike?
- 18-24 year olds: 10%
25-34 years olds: 29%
45-54 year olds: 22%
55-64 year olds: 8%
- The ratio of men to women riding GREENbikes is 60:40. Statistically, only about 20% of bicycle commuters are female, so bike share systems seem to double the number of women commuting on bikes. Ben thinks this is because the GREENbikes have chain guards, skirt guards, baskets and let you step through the frames.
- Out of towners: 28%
Regional (Ogden, Provo): 22%
Salt Lake County: 50%
- 25% of GREENbike users have never ridden a bike for transportation. It looks like GREENbike is helping people rethink options for their daily commute.
A first-mile/last-mile solution
Two of the 10 most popular trips recorded by GREENbike last year started or ended at the UTA Salt Lake Central Station at the Intermodal Hub (600 West 300 South). According to an annual GREENbike survey, 40% of riders use GREENbike to connect with UTA services and 80% of users say that GREENbike is an enhancement to UTA’s existing system.
Are they safe?
So far, with over 88 million rides logged on U.S. bike share programs around the country, only one bike commuter fatality has been recorded. Which makes bike commuting sound way safer than driving a car. The heavy GREENbikes are a slow ride with seats and a frame that put riders in an upright position, allowing them to watch traffic and navigate safety. The bikes also catch the eye of drivers with automatic front and rear LED lights and that bright green color. They’re about as noticeable as you can get.
How does it work? What are the rules?
Could I rent a bike and take it home—or to work—since there’s no station where I live? Nope. The system is meant to make sure the bike is under your butt or in a station. That way it’s less likely to get lost or stolen—the program usually loses about one bike per year.
What does it cost?
There are short-term and long term GREENbike rentals with varying prices. If you live or commute through downtown and plan on using a GREENbike at least once a week, the annual pass is a great deal for $75. It gives you as many one-hour rides as you want for a year. There are two short-term passes: a 24-hour pass ($7) and a four-day pass ($15). Each of those passes has unlimited 30-minute rides, from station to station, without extra charges. If you keep a bike longer than 30 minutes, even though you rented it for the day (or four days) you will be charged an extra $5 for every additional hour that it’s not returned to a station. Some discounts are available.
Good for the environment
According to Bolte, GREENbike has helped remove 2.2 million vehicle miles from our roads, prevented 2 million pounds of CO2 from being released into our air, and burned about 34 million calories (from you know where).
The “unicorn” bike is the one unique bike in the GREENbike system—it’s blue, and is in circulation a third more than the average GREENbike. A portion of its “earnings” are donated to a select nonprofit for a course of two years. The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) is the latest partner.
Anna Zumwalt is the newest CATALYST staff member.