July 11, 2014 -- From meager beginnings, Houston's bikesharing program has blossomed into a big draw for visitors and locals looking for a quick ride.
For the first six months of 2014, Houston B-Cycle logged 43,530 checkouts, according to agency data. The system had about 2,000 checkouts in all of 2012, the year it started with three stations and 18 bikes.
"We are excited about continuing the expansion and operations," Houston B-Cycle director Will Rub said. "We still feel like we are on track for our five-year plan for having 100 stations and 1,000 bikes by 2017."
The smooth ride to a 29-station, 225-bike system hasn't been all downhill, however. Use of a couple of stations meant to move B-Cycle into targeted areas is well below expectations, and three bikes, valued at about $1,200 each, have gone missing.
The bumps are balanced by good ridership even in the city's hotter months, if June is any indication. As the weather warmed, the system still averaged more than 220 checkouts a day. Based on calculations of how long the bikes were checked out and an average travel distance, officials estimate the bikes have traveled more than 143,000 miles this year.
Compared to the 169 million miles vehicles travel every day in the Houston region, of course, B-Cycle's distance is microscopic.
Robert Greenleaf, 26, grabbed a bike Thursday morning at the station near the Houston Zoo so he could tool around Hermann Park while in Houston visiting his girlfriend. Though the checkout took a while because he was a first-timer, it was smooth sailing once the kiosk released the bike, Greenleaf said.
"It was easier to ride than I expected," he said.
Biking on a whim
Many of the bikesharing trips in Houston are taken by visitors and locals just checking out a bike on a whim, Rub said. Recreational use is a larger share of the trips than officials expected, Rub said, and comes with some benefits because those impulse trips pay more on a per-ride basis.
Riders can check out a bike if they purchase a daily, monthly or annual pass. Costs range from $5 for the day to $65 for a yearly membership. The bike is free for the first hour, then $2 for every 30 minutes thereafter. Bikes can be returned to any B-Cycle station with a open slot, and a day or monthly pass entitles the rider to an unlimited number of checkouts.
Rub said about 65 percent of the monthly operational costs of the system - shifting bikes between stations, repairs and staffing - are covered by user and rental fees. The deficit is filled with money from a $750,000 partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas.
Those recreational trips help raise the revenue, Rub said.
The Houston Zoo station is the most popular spot for cyclists to grab a bicycle, accounting for 4,555 of Houston's checkouts for the past sixth months. The kiosks at Sabine Bridge and Spotts Park were the second and third-most popular spots.
Houston's bikesharing growth follows a massive expansion of the system in 2013, spurred by the Blue Cross partnership and federal grants. Other companies also have partnered with B-Cycle to add stations. The Coca-Cola Co.'s foundation contributed $25,000 for a station outside Clayton Homes, a public housing development.
The Clayton kiosk and another outside Project Row Houses in the Third Ward were aimed at bringing bikes to low-income areas where residents might be looking for a new travel option. So far, neither has achieved the hoped-for result. In the first six months of 2014, the Clayton Homes station had 268 checkouts, and Project Row Houses logged 192.
Better marketing job?
Rub said B-Cycle leaders hope to make it easier to use the bikes or do a better job marketing them.
Sometimes people take rides after stumbling upon the stations. Crystal Humble, visiting Hermann Park with her son and a friend, took an impromptu ride simply because the station was there.
More than 30,000 of Houston's B-Cycle trips have been taken by one-time users. That's a slightly higher share than in other cities.
"Our trips sort of break down where members take about 60 percent of our rides," said Nick Bohnenkamp, executive director of Denver B-Cycle.
Bohnenkamp warned it is difficult to compare bikesharing totals because the sizes of cities' systems vary, and cities popular with tourists are likely to have more usage.
Denver's growth is a good aspiration for Houston, however. Its system, one of the country's largest, logged 263,000 trips last year. Denver has 84 stations and 624 bikes.
Houston's long-term plans mirror what Denver has already built in some sections of the city. Stations are spaced about every 1,000 feet, making it easy for a rider to grab a bike for a quick trip down the street for lunch or an appointment. From there, stations have been added to expand the edges of the system.
Although Houston has a group of committed, frequent riders, it hasn't hit the level where grabbing a bike becomes a viable option for most people, Rub said.
"Right now we don't have the station density that really contributes to it being a really integrated network," Rub said.
Title sponsor wanted
Houston B-Cycle is hoping to lure a title sponsor - like New York's 6,000-bike system did with Citibank - to commit $4 million over five years. Paired with grant money and federal funds for air quality improvements, the title sponsor would give Houston the capital to blanket many areas, such as the Texas Medical Center.
"I think that network in and of itself is going to create some very impressive numbers when we are in the (medical center)," Rub said.
B-Cycle by the numbers
- 43,530 Number of checkouts logged by Houston B-Cycle during the first six months of 2014
- 2,000 Approximate number of checkouts logged by Houston B-Cycle in all of 2012
- 29 Number of stations operated by Houston B-Cycle as of June 2014
- 100 Number of stations Houston B-Cycle projects to be operating by 2017
- Go to Houston Chronicle Story. Link may expire over time.