Bike Sharing Rides Into Tampa, St. Petersburg

Andrew Blikken envisions bike trails and bicyclists routinely crisscrossing Pinellas County from Clearwater down to Pass-a-Grill Beach and over to the Tampa Bay shoreline. He sees the same for Tampa, with bike trails connecting Westshore, downtown, Bayshore and Ybor City out to the University of South Florida in North Tampa.

"We hope to create an enormous audience,'' says Blikken, a 30-year-old entrepreneur who is program director of the Tampa Bay Bike Share program expected to kick off here in late fall. 

Blikken has already signed a contract with the city of Tampa to implement and coordinate the program and expects St. Petersburg to give the go-ahead in the near future. 

If Blikken has his way, bicycling will become a fun, affordable and acceptable mode of transportation in the Tampa Bay region for everyone from recreational users and tourists to college students and business professionals commuting to class, work and lunch. 

It's not about replacing cars, but about giving people an alternative mode of transportation that connects neighborhoods, embraces healthy living, reduces carbon pollution and is cost-effective, he says.

"If people can bike year-round in places like Copenhagen or the Netherlands, why not here in Tampa Bay,'' says Blikken, who saw the benefits of Copenhagen's bike-share program six years ago while on a visit there after college. He's been intrigued with the idea of creating bike share programs in the U.S. ever since.

The timing for introducing bike share to the Tampa Bay community couldn't be better.  Across the country, bicycling has caught on in a big way. The New York City program that launched in June is getting a lot of attention around the globe. Bike sharing programs have also launched in Boston, Denver, Miami Beach, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

Mount Up, Let's Ride

Tampa Bay's many avid cyclists have always known the joys of being outside, wind in the hair, zipping down city streets and trails. 

Every Saturday morning in the parking lot of North Shore Pool near downtown St. Petersburg, more than 100 cyclists show up ready to ride for a "social'' ride of anywhere from 15 to 35 miles or a longer, more intense 35-plus mile trip to Clearwater Beach and back.

Whereas the average recreational cyclist expecting to rent a bike from Tampa Bay Bike Share may travel at eight or so miles per hour, riders with the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club average anywhere from 14 to 22 miles per hour, or more.

"The SPBC makes a significant contribution to the culture, physical fitness and cycling safety in the Tampa Bay area,'' writes Patrick McNulty on the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club's website. The club, which currently has about 250 members, has been around since the 1960s.

Attorney Joe Bayliss has been riding with the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club since 1985 and says the city is becoming more and more bike friendly and earning a reputation as something of a "mecca'' for cyclists. He credits former Mayor Rick Baker for developing dozens of bike lanes throughout the city.

"Although there is a still somewhat of a love-hate relationship between cyclists and motorists, St. Petersburg is great place for bicycling,'' says Bayliss. "We have a lot of guys in who come to the area for three to four months of the year from places like Upstate New York so they can continue to ride with us in the winter.''

In addition to the bike clubs and bike lanes on city streets, St. Petersburg has also marked out numerous bike trails on city maps, and can claim a large portion of the Pinellas Trail, a 37-mile paved bike and pedestrian pathway that goes from Tarpon Springs to downtown St. Petersburg.

Now, with new bike sharing programs, St. Petersburg and Tampa will jump to the next level in embracing bikes as part of the culture.

The City of Tampa first put out a request for proposal for a bicycle sharing program last October. Three companies responded, with Miami-based CycleHop, parent company of  local Tampa Bay Bike Share, winning the bid in May of this year.

In phase one, Tampa's plan calls for 300 bikes to be available at 40 stations or "hub location'' with each hub "hosting'' between five to 15 bikes, says Blikken. 

More bikes and hubs will be added as demand grows with anticipated expansion to the University of South Florida at some point in the future.

Green Light Pinellas

Cheryl Stacks, the bike pedestrian coordinator for the City of St. Petersburg's Transportation Department, says the city's lawyers have given the proposal a green light and the city anticipates moving forward on the contract soon. 

In the meantime, she is already mapping out where to place bikes and "hub stations.'' The official designated boundaries for the program are expected to range from 30th Avenue North to 26th Avenue South, west to U.S. 19 and east to the waterfront. St. Petersburg also expects to make available about 300 bikes and to have 30 or so hub locations.

So far, "we're including the waterfront, downtown, a fair number of parks, the bus transit terminal and a section of the Pinellas Trail,'' says Stacks. "As demand warrants, we will extend the boundaries.''

But that doesn't mean, however, that bicyclists can't ride outside of the designated area or drop off bikes at a location other than an official hub station.  

"There will be an incentive to lock the bike up to a hub station -- maybe a coupon to a local restaurant, but you'll be able to lock your bike to any bike rack or stop sign or anything secure,'' says Blikken. In addition, riders who take the bikes out of the "designated'' bike share areas, will simply pay an extra charge because of the cost of retrieving the bikes. 

Unlike many other programs in the country, Tampa Bay Bike Share has what Karen Kress, director of transportation and planning for the Tampa Downtown Partnership, calls a "smart bike and a dumb rack.''

"One of the reasons we went with CycleHop was that it's a very nimble system,'' says Kress. "We have over 200 bike racks downtown that cyclists will be able to use. You can lock up the bike anywhere you need to.''

Blikken is contracting with Social Bicycles to supply the sturdy, user-friendly bikes that will come equipped a GPS and SIM card, high-tech accessories essential to the program.

"The GPS allows us to locate the bikes and the SIM card gives us additional info for maintenance issues like tire pressure, as well as data about who's checked out the bike and the traffic patterns,'' says Blikken.

The bikes will have a basket integrated into the handlebars, three speeds, heavy gauge rims and spokes. They also have airless tires that are filled with polyurethane foam so they don't puncture as easily and a drive train that is closed to the environment so dust and dirt won't be a problem.

The cost to cyclists has not yet been finalized, but Blikken anticipates hourly and daily rentals as well as a yearly pass, with the cost under $100. The program will operate at zero taxpayer expense, he says, with Tampa Bike Share managing all aspects of the operation, from marketing to bike maintenance, bike deployment and liability.

To help defray costs associated with the program, Blikken is looking for advertisers and sponsors. He is currently in discussions with several banks, cell phone companies and a grocery store chain about lending their name as a main branding sponsor. 

"Besides purchasing the bikes, much of the ongoing cost of the program will be in re-balancing,'' says Blikken. That means moving the bikes from where the user has left them to a more central location like a hub station, which could be at major bus stops.

Connecting With City Buses

Blikken expects buses and vans for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority (HART) as well as Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) to be a great fit with the new Tampa Bay Bike Share Program. 

"You can use the Tampa Bay Bike Share phone app to secure a bike for yourself at the bus station's bike hub,'' says Blikken. "Then once you get off the bus at the station, you simply punch in your pin code to unlock the bike from the rack and ride off to your destination.''

But HART and PSTA have been bike friendly for years. All HART buses and vans are equipped with bicycle racks and folding bikes are permitted on board, says HART spokesperson Sandra Pinto. HART even has a video to show users how it's done.

The program is popular, says Pinto. Last year's statistics for HART's fiscal year, which runs from October to September, show that the buses' bike racks were used 225,603 times. This year's number are expected to be higher, says Pinto.

Pinellas County is seeing similar demand for its bikes to buses program, says Bob Lasher, PSTA external affairs officer.

The bike share program has lots of fans.

St. Petersburg City Council member Steve Kornell is in full support of the city implementing the new bike share program. He says it just makes sense for St. Petersburg.

"It's another option to get around our city,'' says Kornell. "It will help people stay fit and it will not cost the city a penny to implement it.''

He is also a big advocate of figuring out how to integrate Pinellas County's current bike trail system into the new bike share program. He points to the Pinellas County Trail, which recently added a new link to downtown St. Petersburg, as well as a new bike trail being developed for the new Pinellas Bayway bridge to St. Pete Beach. 

In the future, he hopes to see the trail system expand and to develop a possible link between Pinellas and Hillsborough County, perhaps with a bike lane on the Howard Frankland Bridge.

Alan Snel, who moved to Arizona at the end of last year, was a long-time, highly visible advocate of biking in Tampa Bay through his leadership of SWFTBUD, South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers. Snel says the new Tampa Bay Bike Share Program is a step in the right direction, but emphasizes that developing a regional network of bike trails is the best way to go. 

He says he'd like to see Tampa build a more regionally connected bike trail system that connects the city from Westshore in the west to Ybor in the east, something like the Pinellas Trail.

"If you want to maximize the number of people on bikes, especially young families and people who are inexperienced riders, a good trail system is the best way to funnel bike traffic into downtown,'' says Snel.

As for Blikken, he's busy promoting bike share programs in other cities in Florida and around the country. CycleHop recently won the bid for the City of Phoenix and the University of North Florida outside of Jacksonville and has a proposal into the City of Atlanta.

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, FL, who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.