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Mirroring the explosive growth in bicycle-sharing across the Unites States, Madison BCycle is on target to record its highest annual ride total since selling its first ride more than six years ago.

Questions remain for BCycle and other bike-sharing ventures, though, about whether they should aspire to be privately run and profitable or something like government-subsidized public transit.

More than 100,000 rides had already been logged with Madison BCycle as of late November, according to the company’s executive director, Morgan Ramaker, and she’s expecting about 110,000 by year’s end. That’s up from more than 20,000 rides in 2011 after BCycle’s launch in May of that year. Checking out a bicycle and checking it back in again at one of BCycle’s self-service docking stations counts as one ride.

Ramaker said BCycle began with 27 stations and 270 bicycles and saw steady growth into 2014, when rides started leveling off.

The subsidiary of Waterloo-based bike-maker Trek slowly added more stations — including seven this year — and now has a total of 44 stations and 350 bicycles, and it has seen its annual and monthly members rise to more than 3,700. It had 500 annual members in 2011 and no monthly program.

BCycle has also expanded into 43 other cities, providing equipment and technology sometimes under the names of other bike-sharing operators, including Bublr Bikes in Milwaukee.

The goal has been to get more people on bikes such that “it becomes part of what people do,” Ramaker said, and top-of-mind when thinking about transit options.

It’s “bike-share as the bike’s role in public transit,” she said.

Popular on campus

On a recent Monday morning, a BCycle employee had just finished moving several bikes from the 17-dock station outside UW-Madison’s Union South when, over the course of about 20 minutes, four BCycle customers pulled up to return their bikes.

David Lee, a 37-year-old UW-Madison computer programmer who lives in Middleton, used a BCycle bike to get from Memorial Library, a ride of just less than a mile.

He drives to work but uses Metro Transit or BCycle to get around campus during the day.

“The parking on campus isn’t too bad but there’s very limited short-term parking on campus,” said Lee, a BCycle member for several years.

UW-Madison engineering major Isaiah Scott, 22, said he’s been a BCycle member since last summer, when he needed to get to an internship on Madison’s East Side, and now uses the service about five times a week.

Zach Self, also 22, said he’s been a BCycle member for three years and often bikes from his home to the engineering building. He said he likes that he can choose to walk back home if he likes.

With cheap bikes available on Craigslist and at thrift stores, why don’t people like Scott and Self simply buy their own wheels?

“I’ve had two bikes get stolen on campus,” Scott said, despite being locked up. Self said he opts for BCycle “just so I don’t have to keep track of” a bike of his own.

“I’ve not really had any problems at all with availability or mechanical problems,” said Lee, although Scott said he has occasionally encountered a docking station without any bikes he could use or stations that were full, meaning he couldn’t return a bike he was already using.

The Union South station is one of BCycle’s busiest for members, Ramaker said, as are two on University Avenue at North Charter and North Lake streets.

For what she called the “casual riders,” or those using day passes, some of the busiest stations are at Memorial Union, Law Park along Lake Monona and the Sheraton hotel farther south on John Nolen Drive.

Rapid growth

A few modern bike-sharing programs had been around for more than 10 years in Europe by the time the first ones arrived in the United States and other countries in 2008, according to a 2009 paper in the Journal of Public Transportation by Paul DeMaio, a bike-sharing consultant and blogger.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials counted 55 bike-sharing systems with 42,000 total bikes in the United States last year, although a more recent count from a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group puts the number of systems at more than 100. NACTO estimated the number of trips taken had grown from about 320,000 in 2010 to about 28 million in 2016.

Eric Sundquist, a BCycle member and director of the Madison-based State Smart Transportation Initiative, said he mostly rides his own bike but that BCycle is a “fill in the gap” service, or a “first- or last-mile solution,” for when the distance to be covered is too far to walk but too short for a bus or a car ride.

“It’s an incredibly important component to an overall multi-modal transportation system,” said Robbie Webber, an SSTI senior associate and former Madison City Council member.

Sundquist said the next advance in bike-sharing is the dock-less system, and possibly adding electric bikes to the mix of shared bikes. Dockless-system bikes can be rented, locked and unlocked via smart phone app and can essentially be left anywhere. They have started to turn up in Seattle and Washington, D.C., among other places.

Business model evolving

BCycle’s increasing popularity isn’t enough to allow it to forgo an annual subsidy from Trek. Ramaker declined to reveal the amount of that subsidy or the company’s revenues, but said BCycle’s other sources of revenue are user fees, advertising and sponsorships, typically from organizations that want bikes and a docking station near their offices.

“Figuring out the revenue model for it has been an evolving process,” she said.

In that, BCycle is not alone. Some cities subsidize their local, privately run bike-sharing systems. Other systems are getting venture, corporate or federal funding. Milwaukee’s Bublr is a nonprofit. Chicago owns its bike-share bikes and stations, but a private company manages them.

The economic side of the industry is “where all the questions are these days,” said Hart Posen, a UW-Madison associate professor of business who tracks sharing economies.

The barriers to starting a bike-sharing company are relatively low, and there’s a lot of competition, he said, and then there are contracts bike-sharing companies sign with cities.

“It’s still too early to know whether this will be profitable,” he said of U.S. bike-sharing companies.

Ramaker, BCycle’s executive director, compared bike-sharing to other forms of public transit, which she noted generally don’t pay for themselves through ridership alone.

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