The bike-sharing program allows users to check out bicycles at stations throughout the downtown, take a trip, and return the bike to a station. Customer miles traveled last year tripled from the 2011 inaugural season, leaping from 36,618 to 94,402 miles, according to the program's annual report, released in December.
Program manager Claire Hurley says it's a clear indicator that Madison residents no longer see the program's recognizable red bikes with their baskets and bells as a novelty. Instead, with the help of about 20 businesses that have become corporate members, riders are embracing bike-sharing as a practical transit option.
The businesses, including St. Mary's Hospital and HGMR Investment Management, either buy group memberships outright or offer to split costs with employees. One of the biggest corporate members is Trek Bicycle, which partners with the city of Madison on the program.
This increasingly pragmatic context is exactly what bike-sharing advocates are hoping for, as the practice displays formidable staying power in some cities (see the Twin Cities' extensive Nice Ride network) and makes a cautious start in others (see downtown Houston's three-station B-cycle network, severely limited by that city's notorious sprawl).
The growth of this "commuter" category even edged out growth among riders in the UW-Madison community, which in B-cycle's terms includes students, faculty and UW Health employees. UW-Madison memberships jumped from 100 to 900 in 2012, Hurley says, but other commuters ended up accounting for about 1,100 memberships.
In the wake of B-cycle's growth, Hurley says she and other program staff will meet this month with Mayor Paul Soglin to discuss how to market Madison as a model bike-sharing town. Hurley says B-cycle also plans to expand on a business outreach strategy that so far has paid off well. The program currently seeks to get companies on board through existing networks like Dane Buy Local and Downtown Madison, Inc. It also holds lunch-hour bike demonstrations for businesses and keeps corporate members posted on B-cycle statistics.
"Most often companies are interested to see, 'Are people riding? Where are they going? And what stations are being used most by my employees?' That's all data we can pull," Hurley says.
In the long run, B-cycle will need the local business community's help if it wants to expand its reach beyond downtown and the near east and west sides. The network will expand from 33 to 35 stations this year, but the two new ones will help reinforce the system's central core, because "the density of stations is huge" in determining the system's success, Hurley says.
Hurley also wants B-cycle to embrace low-income residents who tend to walk or bike to work but not necessarily have access to a credit card to buy a membership. Hurley hasn't yet proposed a specific solution, but cites the example of Denver's B-cycle program, which has partnered with local housing officials to attract low-income members.
Indeed, Denver's example suggests that bike-sharing programs need to prove their worth to demographics beyond affluent progressives and college students. Denver B-cycle's effort to increase low-income riders yielded only 32 new memberships in 2012, the Denver Post reported. This only ended up fueling criticism that the program neglected poor and minority neighborhoods.
Before B-cycle returns in March, the program will also consider whether to change its approach to advertising, as membership fees don't cover its entire budget. For now, Hurley says, Trek and B-cycle's most immediate concern is overhauling its approximately 360 bikes. The biggest area of wear and tear? Worn-out handlebar grips and bells, Hurley says.