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Friday, May 24, 2024

Ride Along

Very rarely do projects for a city come together quickly. With multiple organizations represented, along with certain requirements for plans, it can take years for visions to come to fruition. Such was not the case for Evansville’s Upgrade Bike Share program.

“It was a convergence of interests,” says Don Jones, president of the Evansville Area Trails Coalition and University of Evansville’s vice president of marketing and communications. “It was one of those things where you see various places — that are independent from each other — coming up with the same idea. It’s validation that it’s worth doing.”

“Bike share” is not a phrase new to the city of Evansville. The idea is to provide bicycle transportation to points in a city. Users pick up a bike at any self-service station and pay a fee for an allotted time. Different organizations over the years have researched ways to implement such a program in Evansville but never were able to start one.

The tide would turn last year for an Evansville bike share on the campus of the University of Evansville. For the last three years, the college’s Institute for Global Enterprise in Indiana has sponsored the Changemaker Challenge, opening the door for teams of UE students to compete to solve issues with innovative ideas for start-ups and enterprises. The team that finished in second place in 2016 worked toward energy conservation, with one of its recommendations being a bike share program.

A few months following the UE student competition, another Changemaker Challenge was held for area high school students. From there, two teams from Memorial and Central high schools produced plans for bike share programs. Though neither project won the challenge, the students’ proposals caught the eye of Jones, who — in his role with the Evansville Trails Coalition — had been working on starting the bike and pedestrian connectivity plan produced by the city in 2014.

Emboldened by the interest, he engaged in conversations with various city departments and organizations, including Stephanie Tenbarge of ECHO Housing and Crystal Paroyan of the Downtown YMCA of Southwestern Indiana. He began searching for grants for funding when the Evansville Convention and Visitors Bureau approached him. From there, the number of organizations involved climbed to 18, including the title sponsor Welborn Baptist Foundation through their “Upgrade — You. Only Better” initiative (Welborn describes Upgrade as an “area-wide initiative that encourages residents to take small steps that will help make them healthy for the long-term”).

“It was from basically nothing that a number of committed partners came and said they wanted to be a part of bike share and saw the benefits,” says Kevin Bain, chief executive officer and executive director of Welborn.

Soon, the City of Evansville, Deaconess, St. Mary’s, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana, and Meritain Health joined as sponsors. With these organizations on board, the group pursued a plan from Zagster — a bike share company headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts — to provide bikes.

By September 2016, the Upgrade Bike Share program was ready for launch with seven stations, each with 15 bikes, set up throughout the city. From beginning to end, the process of implementing the share took six months.

An official launch press conference was held at the University of Evansville Oct. 3, 2016, explaining bike share to the public and sharing how it also helps with connectivity and recreation opportunities in the city. It also can open the door to better infrastructure for bike and walking paths.

“Bike share was a no-brainer,” says Jones. “Infrastructure for bike share is equally a no-brainer, but more difficult. It involves changing our mental model. Every city in the country is getting to that point of understanding. Evansville will get there too.”

Numbers reflecting usage of the bike share up to November reaffirmed the belief the community is ready and more than willing to support the program. As of that month, there were 468 members, with 754 rentals. The average trip duration for riders was around 47 minutes, and the station with the highest usage was the Pagoda along the riverfront.

With more sponsors knocking on Jones’s door wanting to be a part of bike share and add more stations, those numbers will only continue to grow.

“It’s pretty incredible in a short period of time,” says Andrea Hays, program and community engagement officer for Welborn. “It’s changing the culture, too. People are demanding that kind of recreation and potential commuting options, which is exciting.”

“Bike share adds to the quality of life aspect of the city,” adds Bain. “It’s not in and of itself the one thing that makes a difference, but it’s part of the combination of things that adds to the momentum in a positive direction.”

For more information about the Upgrade Bike Share program and to register, visit zagster.com/upgrade.

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