Bike sharing program comes to town

Lex Treinen/Sun Star Reporter
April 9, 2013

Paying for a personal vehicle might be out of reach for many UAF students, but one local group is trying to change the idea that not having a car means you’re stuck on campus.

R.E.M.: Unconventional Visions, a local think-tank, is beginning work on a bike sharing program suited for the Fairbanks climate that may start as early as this summer. The program would allow students, community members and tourists to pickup bikes at various automated check-out stations around town and drop them off at their convenience for a small fee.

R.E.M. pitched the idea at the Startup Weekend Fairbanks event. Startup Weekend describes itself on its website as a “global grassroots movement of active and empowered entrepreneurs who are learning the basics of founding startups and launching successful ventures.” The Fairbanks event on Mar. 8 was one of 400 around the world and the first one hosted in Fairbanks. Local entrepreneurs were asked to present ideas for a service or product to the forum, which would then form groups around ideas of interest to offer feedback and support. R.E.M. pitched an idea of their concept of a bike share, which they presented back to the forum after three days of work. After flushing out the details about the general marketing and implementation strategies with a working group, R.E.M. is ready to push ahead with their business idea.

Bikeshare programs are already a mature business model in Western Europe, but the model has only recently become more popular in the United States. Bikesbelong.org, a national advocacy group, promotes modern bikeshare programs as having “a level of legitimacy that matches other types of public transportation.” According to Bikesbelong.org press materials, the unique advantages of bikeshare programs are that they create a convenience for users by preventing theft and storage issues, generate revenue, create jobs, motivate cities to improve bike infrastructure and introduce new audiences to bicycling.

R.E.M. plans to test a pilot program this summer and have the program running by 2014. At the very least there will be a test bike at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market this summer, where people can try out the bike designs. Shepherd said that the group hopes to experiment with different bike designs so that they are fun to ride.

While it is still unknown what the challenges the fickle Fairbanks winters will throw, Juliet Shepherd said she hopes that eventually the program will be able to run year round. Shepherd said that the business is good for other local business since it will increase the time that visitors spend in the town. Right now, most tourists spend an average of less than 2 days in Fairbanks. “The idea is to extend the average amount of time and resources visitors spend in Fairbanks,” Shepherd said. The stations will be strategically located to encourage shopping at local businesses.

Shepherd said that while anybody will be able to use the bikes, the market will target locals.

Creating an economically feasible and self-sustaining business is the challenge for Shepherd and R.E.M. Rates are also yet undecided, but Shepherd said she wants to keep the costs affordable–somewhere around $5 to $10 per day, with monthly passes also available. Shepherd said that R.E.M.’s goals is to show that a for “a for-profit business doesn’t mean robbing you blind.” Currently there is no plan for student discounts, but Shepherd said that organizers are looking into the Groupon model of offering discounts at certain times and locations.

The program as yet has no relationship with the UAF Office of Sustainability, who already rents out bikes to students for free, but there still might be a market. “As long as the fee is made economical, I think it would [promote biking instead of driving]” said junior Engineering student Clayton Auld, “Not everybody’s gonna go out and buy a bike.”

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