Your Village: Is Iowa City getting a bike-share program?

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A bike rest on Clinton Street in downtown Iowa City. — photo by Zak Neumann

What’s going on with the bike-share program for Iowa City? Is it still going to happen? — Anonymous, via the Your Village feature on LV’s homepage

“The goal is to have it in place by the fall,” said Iowa City Transportation Director Darian Nagle-Gamm.

Anyone with a memory that stretches back to 2015 might view that statement with skepticism. Three years ago, it was announced the city and the University of Iowa had entered into a partnership to bring a bike-share program to Iowa City. Hopes were high, a request for bids was issued, the city had funding in place to build the program’s infrastructure. Then nothing happened.

Or rather, nothing happened in Iowa City, but something big happened to the bike-share business.

In 2015, the model for bike-sharing programs began to rapidly shift from a system with centralized kiosks where bike are checked out and returned, to a dockless one modeled on programs that had recently launched in Beijing, Shanghai and other major Chinese cities.

A dockless bike-share program uses self-locking bikes equipped with digital locks and GPS trackers. Anyone can locate and rent a bike using a smartphone app. In Iowa City, it will also be possible to unlock and rent a bike using a debit or credit card.

Not only is a dockless system more flexible than a kiosk-based one, allowing the distribution of bikes to be easily shifted to areas with the greatest demand, it also doesn’t have the same infrastructure costs associated with building and maintaining rental kiosks.

As the potential advantages of the new dockless system became apparent in 2015, the city put its decision about the bike-sharing program on hold. Earlier this year, it solicited bids for a dockless system.

“We are in the final steps of selecting a vendor,” Nagle-Gamm said. Bids from three companies are currently under consideration. This time, no grant money or partnerships to help cover expenses is needed. “The [winning] company will bear all the costs of setting up and running the system,” Nagle-Gamm explained.

Until a company is selected, it isn’t possible to say how much it will cost to rent a bike. Around the country, the average fee is $1 for 30 minutes. But in some cities, such as College Station, Texas (home of Texas A&M), it’s much cheaper — 50 cents an hour.

Dockless bike-share programs in bigger municipalities — including New York, Washington, D.C. and Dallas — have run into problems. In addition to problems with the bikes being vandalized, each of those cities allowed multiple companies to set up programs. More programs meant more bikes, which led to large numbers of unused bikes taking up room on city sidewalks. People complained, and cities responded by imposing limits on the number of bikes in the dockless programs. Some of the bigger bike-share companies decided pull out of cities that have imposed new restrictions.

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Iowa City plans to award only one contract for its bike-share program.

“We’re hoping to launch the program as soon as possible after a contract is signed,” Nagle-Gamm said.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 249.