hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues June 2017


Pedal power for the masses

Bike-sharing program to start in July in Saratoga, Troy


The bicycle lane along Excelsior Avenue in Saratoga Springs might soon have more traffic as the Capital District Transportation Authority sets up a series of area bike-sharing stations. Joan K. Lentini photoBy EVAN LAWRENCE
Contributing writer



The bicycle lane along Excelsior Avenue in Saratoga Springs might soon have more traffic as the Capital District Transportation Authority sets up a series of area bike-sharing stations. Joan K. Lentini photo

Anyone who needs a bike to get around town will be able to check one out from locations around Saratoga Springs and Troy as a new bicycle-sharing program makes its debut next month in New York’s Capital Region.
The Capital District Transportation Authority, which runs the Albany region’s bus system, says the program will start with a total of 160 specialized bicycles at stations in Saratoga Springs, Troy, Schenectady and Albany.

“The program is part of a larger vision to bring mobility options under the CDTA umbrella,” explained Jaime Watson, a spokeswoman for the agency.

A $2 million Federal Highway Administration grant will cover 80 percent of the new program’s cost, with most of the rest coming from a grant the CDTA received previously. Capital District Physicians’ Health Plan, a regional health insurer, also is helping pay for the bicycles, and the program officially will be named CDPHP Cycle.

In a bike-sharing program, a municipality or organization such as a college makes bicycles available for use in a defined area. Usually there’s a small rental fee. New York City, Boston and many other large cities have developed extensive bike-sharing programs in recent years.
Lauren Bailey, the CDTA’s mobility manager, said planning officials lately have begun to see bike sharing as a workable option even for medium-sized cities.

Three summers ago, the CDTA organized one-week pilot programs with 25 free bicycles in Albany, Schenectady, Troy and Saratoga Springs. In Saratoga Springs, “the trial was very successful,” city planner Kate Maynard said.

“It had support from residents but was also heavily utilized by tourists,” Maynard said. “We got great information.”

CDTA decided there was enough interest to justify pursuing a permanent program. The original idea was to have each city run its own program, but planners found that task daunting, Bailey said.

“CDTA could do it more efficiently,” Bailey said. “We operate in all four counties and could integrate it with our transit system.”

Many details of the program are still being finalized and will be announced later this month, Bailey said. CDTA expects to create at least 20 hubs, or special racks where the bikes will be locked when not in use, among the four cities.

The agency has chosen Social Bicycles of Brooklyn, which also ran the pilot program in 2014, as the vendor to provide bikes and equipment for the new program. Social Bicycles already operates bicycle-sharing programs in 27 locations across 13 states and five countries; in upstate New York, it runs a program in Buffalo.

“Social Bicycles offered the most flexibility,” Bailey said. “It has a better track record than the other bidders.”


Electronic tracking, payments
Social Bicycles’ bikes are designed for short city trips. They have a sturdy step-over frame, upright handlebars, fenders, a handlebar basket with a 20-pound capacity, an internal shaft drive and enclosed gears, and bright LED lights in front and back that go on when the pedals turn.
Each bike has an integrated wireless computer system that tracks the bicycle’s location and allows riders to make reservations from a computer, smart phone, or from the bike itself. Payment for a ride is by debit or credit card.

“The bikes are very stable but heavy,” Bailey said.
At a hefty 40 pounds, these bikes aren’t meant for touring. People are expected to use them mainly for trips of less than 30 minutes and three miles.

“That will get you to most places in Albany, Troy, Schenectady, and Saratoga Springs,” Bailey said.

The bikes have eight speeds to reduce the challenge of hills.
“We want to make it as easy as possible for people,” Bailey said.

Urban cyclists live with the specter of theft, but Bailey said planners don’t expect the bikes in the CDTA program face much risk of being stolen. The distinctive bikes come with locks and are GPS-enabled for easy tracking. They can’t be taken apart without special tools, and their proprietary parts won’t fit other bicycles.

Still, riders are financially responsible for the bikes they check out.
“If the bike is left unlocked, it’s on your account,” Bailey said.

Social Bicycles will have an operations manager and technicians in the area to collect, maintain, and repair the bikes, Bailey said.

Bicycles will be available by the hour from several hubs in each city. They’re meant to be used within a defined service area, generally one to three miles from the hub. (The GPS on the bike will show the boundaries.) There will be an extra charge if the bicycle is taken outside the service area -- and a bigger charge if the bicycle is left outside the service area.

However, bicycles don’t need to be returned to the hub from which they were checked out. For example, if a customer rides a bike to a restaurant or pub, the skies open, and he gets a car ride home with friends, bike techs can collect the bicycle later.

Bailey said patrons will be able to buy monthly or annual memberships that will give them 60 minutes of free riding time daily.

Aiming for easy access
Riders are expected to include tourists, students and people who live or work in Saratoga Springs or the other area cities served by the bike-share program.

“We expect to start in areas with high concentrations of people but may also expand to neighborhoods,” Maynard said.

In Saratoga Springs, the exact placement and number of bike-sharing hubs is still under discussion. But Congress Park, Saratoga Spa State Park, and the Saratoga Race Course – places “where people actively go in the summer” -- will certainly have hubs.

“We’re thinking of tourists and track workers,” Maynard said. “We want to serve the community as a whole.”

Many backstretch workers at the racetrack lack vehicles – even bicycles – of their own, so the program should make it easier for these seasonal residents to run routine errands.
“This expands the options if you don’t have a bike of your own,” Maynard said.

City planning officials in Troy did not respond to several messages last month inviting them to discuss plans for the bike-sharing program there.

The CDTA says it doesn’t expect the program to be self-supporting.
“The real goal is to get people on bicycles, not make money,” Bailey said. “Bike shares typically don’t pay for themselves. The revenue is helpful but not budgeted for.”

The real benefits are expected to be reduced traffic congestion, economic development, a more attractive downtown – and the option of a healthy alternative to driving.
“Millenials want no-car options,” Maynard said. “This is a really important part of mobility options in the city.”

The program will be good for downtown businesses, she added.
“Studies we’ve seen show that there are economic benefits to bike sharing,” Maynard said. “When people walk or bike, they see more shops and may make more stops” than they would if they were in a car.

The Saratoga Springs Office of Planning & Economic Development, which has been working on improving the city’s accessibility for bicyclists, is collaborating with the downtown business association, the county tourism and convention bureau, individual hotel operators, and local citizens groups – including Sustainable Saratoga and Bikeatoga -- to plan and promote the program.


Planning for growth
CDTA plans to buy another 140 bicycles over the winter, which would allow it to nearly double the size of the bike-sharing program next year. Data from the bikes’ computer systems will help in planning the 2018 season, which will start in March.

“Departments of public works and planning departments want to develop better bicycle infrastructure,” such as bike lanes and the placement of more bike racks, Bailey said. “This program will provide data showing that people will bike if they’re given the chance.”
David Haller, an active member and past president of Bikeatoga, said the program will provide a big boost to the cause of bicycling in Saratoga Springs.

“We’re thrilled that the bike share is going to happen,” Haller said.
Bikeatoga advocates for better infrastructure for bicycle riders in Saratoga Springs, and the group runs a bike rescue program.

“The bike share will increase bicycling visibility,” Haller said. “The more bikes there are on the road, the more people want to ride them. Tourists will ride from downtown to the track or the park. Locals may use the shared bikes instead of their own.”

There will be benefits for safety as well, he predicted.
“There’s a critical mass when you see other people riding bikes for errands,” Haller said. “When there are more bikes, motorists pay more attention to them.”

Railroad Run, a bike path on an old railroad bed that connects downtown to Saratoga Spa State Park, is already one of the most heavily used bike paths in the region, Haller said. The path connects to other bike trails in the park.

CDTA staff members are meeting with groups around the region to publicize the program.
“This is a new concept,” Bailey said. “Not everyone will be able to understand it right away.”
Businesses and civic groups that want to help should “reach out to us,” Bailey said. “Can you offer a location on your property for a bike rack? Can you promote the bike share?”
The agency is seeking donations of bicycle helmets, she added.


The CDPHP Cycle app should be available this month. For more information about the bike-sharing program, visit cdta.org.