Note: This is the second of a two-part series that focuses on Omaha’s B-cycle program. Part 1 appeared in last week’s issue of The Reader.
Again, the three strikes against bicycle commuting in Omaha (vs. Austin) outlined in last week’s column: 1) Brutal winters, 2) mountainous terrain and 3) unsafe streets.
For answers on how Omaha’s B-cycle program can overcome these obstacles, I went to the guy behind the local program: Ben Turner. Turner began with a history lesson. He said bike sharing is a global concept. The B-cycle version came to America in 2010, developed by bicycle maker Trek, healthcare company Humana and ad firm Crispen Porter + Bogusky. The launch pad was Denver.
B-cycle is “third generation bike sharing,” Turner said. “First generation was campus bikes, but no one maintained them and how do you keep them out of the river? Next was the bike library concept with a manned checkout system. Third generation involves GPS technology on the bikes and stations.”
The concept again: People rent bikes for commuting. For $6 a day a user can ride a bike to and from B-cycle bike racks located throughout midtown and downtown Omaha. They never get charged more than the one-time $6-a-day fee if they can get their rental bike from one rack to the next in less than 60 minutes. Each additional hour costs $4. Omaha has 11 bike stations easily found with a handy B-cycle smartphone app.
Serious B-cyclers can forego the daily fee by buying a year’s membership for $55, the same price as a monthly bus pass. Membership cards work with any B-cycle program in the United States.
Turner said last month was the best month ever for Omaha B-cycle since the program landed here (along with Turner) in 2011. “We’ve done more business in May than in the entire first year of the program’s existence,” he said. And B-cycle is growing. Turner said the program has raised enough money to install 14 more bike stations.
Despite the popularity, the No. 1 challenge continues to be explaining how the program works. People still think B-cycle is for renting bikes for long, leisurely afternoon joyrides on the Keystone Trail or taking the family over the Bob Kerrey foot bridge (where the most-used B-cycle rack is located).
I told Turner I didn’t understand how it worked either until someone in Austin meticulously explained it to me. “People don’t naturally grasp the concept,” he said. “We’re addressing the hurdle through simple information on the kiosks, on the check-in screens and the bikes. It’s right there on the handlebar decals.”
When people finally “get it” — like I did in Austin — it’s a real “aha moment,” and it can be contagious. I saw it happen over a week in Austin during the South By Southwest Festival. At the beginning of SXSW, no one touched the geeky-looking bikes except for us pioneering early adopters. By the end of the week, everyone was riding them, and it was becoming hard to both find an available bike and (at the end of the evening) find an available station to return it. Part of Turner’s job is “balancing” the inventory, which involves hauling bikes around town in his wife’s car.
Back to those three strikes. First, the weather. Turner acknowledged that Omaha winters can be brutal. B-cycle was “closed” through the first two winters of the program’s operation, but was open last winter. “The cost of staying open is minimal,” he said, “and there are some nice days in January and February. We made enough to cover our true variable costs. If you truly want to sell yourself as a transportation option, you have to be available year-round. The bus runs year round. Commuting is a year-round thing.”
Fair enough. But what about those insane hills that divide downtown from midtown Omaha? Turner moved here after working on the Denver B-cycle program. “Denver is super flat,” he said. “You don’t realize what it’s like in Omaha until you get on a bike here. We have all these areas that are cool and vibrant — Midtown Crossing, Dundee, UNO, Aksarben Village — It’s like a series of lily pads each separated by one hill. People can go up one hill.”
He admits people are less likely to ride to and from downtown and UNO. As big a challenge is the brutal hills along 10th Street to Henry Doorly Zoo. “You have to be everywhere a tourist wants to go,” Turner said. “We’re gathering data, we’ll find out the long-term answer. We’re trying to build our program topography agnostic.”
That said, don’t expect to find B-cycle kiosks west of 78th Street. Which brings us to the issue of Omaha’s less-than-pedestrian friendly streets. Within the past few years, bike lanes and “sharrows” began popping up throughout midtown and downtown. All require that motorists heed the lane striping, a scary proposition for any cyclist who’s had a close call with a distracted (often texting) SUV driver (more like SOB driver).
Curbed bike lanes are an answer. They worked in Austin, but could they ever happen in Omaha? Turner said support (and funding) could result if a grassroots effort took hold.
“What B-cycle will do is create a new crop of bicyclists who wants to ride in urban areas,” he said. “You’ll get the business people of the world who want to ride to a downtown meeting and will realize the quality of the experience is not what it should be and will advocate for improved bike facilities.”
Turner said “bike people” are marginalized in Omaha. Strong bike advocates show up at board meetings, but they’re often the same voices heard over and over. Turner is part of an effort to revitalize a bike advocacy group called Omaha Bikes, which is (according to their mission statement) “a community organization that promotes and advocates for improved transportation, utility and recreational bicycling infrastructure, opportunities and experiences for the people of Omaha and the surrounding area.”
“We need voices to speak at City Council and political meetings, people like you,” Turner said, pointing across the table. “We have so many recreational cyclists who don’t ride because they don’t feel safe. Advocacy is the path to success, we have to engage the recreational cyclists.”
And Omaha Bikes is one way to do that. Go to omahabikes.org and find out more.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.