It takes Scott Thompson about 35 minutes to walk to and from his city office on Vine and South Limestone streets to the Jimmy John’s on Main Street near Rose Street. By bike, he can get to the popular restaurant, grab a sandwich and be back in his office in less than 10 minutes.
As the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Lexington area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Thompson keeps a foldable bike in his office. Not everyone who works downtown can bring a bike to work, but biking could become more common soon if Thompson has his way.
Thompson and others are exploring a bike-share program that could make it easier and faster for locals and tourists alike to zip through downtown. A bike-share program allows people to rent bikes for short periods of time. At the same time, it could decrease car traffic on already-crowded downtown streets and promote healthy lifestyles.
“The market for bike-share programs has now matured and there are a lot of possibilities,” Thompson said. “We have been approached by several companies who are looking to get into this market.”
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Thompson said his goal is to put together a work group that includes tourism, parking and other key officials and hopefully return to city leaders with a proposal sometime in 2018.
Bike-share programs have exploded in recent years, even as they evolve.
“We can learn a lot from other cities about what worked and what didn’t,” Thompson said.
More than 40 cities across the country, including Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Cincinnati, have bike-sharing programs.
Louisville has the largest program in Kentucky. It launched this spring after years of delays.
Since May, LouVelo has clocked more than 9,500 rides on 300 bikes that are parked at 27 permanent docking stations in downtown, Old Louisville and other areas.
Matthew Glaser, general manager of LouVelo, said Louisville used a federal grant to start its bike-share program, which averaged 80 trips a day in its first few months.
LouVelo receives an annual operating budget of $50,000 from the city, but it costs about $500,000 to run the system. In addition to fees from riders, the system gets money from corporate sponsors.
LouVelo costs $3.50 for 30 minutes. A 24-hour day pass costs $7.50. Monthly passes cost $15. LouVelo is a division of CycleHop, a bike-share system operator.
Docking stations require a lot of upfront investment. Most, but not all, have been subsidized with federal, state or local transportation dollars and corporate sponsorships.
Over the past two years, though, several bike-share companies have launched dockless systems. Bikes can be rented with a credit card and unlocked using a smart phone application. They do not have to be returned to set locations.
“It doesn’t require a lot of up-front costs,” said Thompson of dockless bike-share systems. “They also don’t require an annual investment.”
But there have been problems with dockless bike-share programs.
In Washington D.C., bikes were left in areas they shouldn’t be, cluttering side walks and roadsides. Others have complained that the bikes sometimes are hard to find or that the app is difficult to use.
“Dockless tends to work better in places where there are a lot of technology early adapters,” Glaser said.
Another issue that has dogged all bike-share systems is that few poor and minority residents use them. A 2016 study in Washington D.C., showed only four percent of its bike-share members were black even though blacks make up 50 percent of the population.
Whichever system Lexington uses, it should not be solely dependent on smart phones and credit cards, which some people don’t own, Thompson said.
“We will have to look at whether we have the right policies in place to ensure that problems that have happened in other cities don’t happen here,” Thompson said.
A bike-share system could also help boost tourism in Lexington, a recent study found. For example, getting from downtown to the popular Distillery District on Manchester Street is daunting on foot but is only a five-minute bicycle ride.
Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLex, the area’s tourism bureau, said biking has become a popular means of transportation for tourists.
“Increasingly, we receive requests on where visitors to Lexington can rent bikes,” Ramer said. “In addition to our downtown core, we have an expanding trail system and we also are known for beautiful back roads. I believe a bike-share program would allow visitors who do not routinely travel with their bikes to explore our city and the surrounding countryside.”
The closest thing Lexington has had to bike-share system was the “yellow bike” program, which allowed people to use yellow bikes on an honor system in the downtown area. That began in 2010 and eventually fizzled out because of a host of issues.
“That’s not a traditional bike-share program and it was not run by the city,” Thompson said. “Some people look at the program and say it didn’t work, but it’s not the same type of program.”
Meanwhile, Lexington has added more dedicated bike lanes in recent years, making it safer and easier for casual cyclists. And the city’s two largest multi-use trails — Town Branch and Legacy trails — should connect in downtown in coming years. Although it’s tough to get accurate numbers on how many people use bikes to commute, a counter on the Legacy Trail showed more than 64,000 trips on the trail in 2016.