Champaign council set to renew bike-share program; electric versions on way

 

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CHAMPAIGN — Perceived by the city council as a success overall, the dockless-bike-sharing program will be renewed this year, officials decided in a study session Tuesday.

It has been less than a year since VeoRide's turquoise bikes started showing up all over campus and the twin cities, and Ben Thomas, general manager of the company's Champaign-Urbana fleet, said this market is already one of the its busiest, clocking in 165,000 rides within six months, or about two to three rides a day per bike.

Given the high level of usage, VeoRide plans to replace 150 of its 500 bikes here with electric models after University of Illinois students return from spring break.

Lily Wilcock, a city of Urbana planner, said during the public-comment period at Tuesday's meeting that she has seen firsthand how big the demand is for bicycles in the area.

As council members discussed, among other things, whether to raise the cap on bicycles allowed per company, Wilcock said volunteer studies done every semester at the UI show "we could handle 2,000 to 2,500 bikes" in the community. Extra bikes could help address one problem Wilcock said she saw almost as soon as VeoRide came to town.

"We have transportation gaps," she said. "Almost within 24 hours of VeoRide coming to town, they were showing up at the Champaign Walmart. That's how much of a transportation gap we have in this town. We have to realize many don't have a car, especially those from campus."

Council member Angie Brix was excited about the prospect of electric bikes maybe filling this gap even further.

Being able to travel longer distances with not as much effort could mean more people will use them on a regular basis, some council members said.

But other officials brought up many issues associated with the bikes. Often, they're left in less-than-desirable places, council members said, and that could impede access in the city for people with disabilities.

There's also the fact that some bikes are left in the same places for days, weeks or even months.

Council member Alicia Beck was among those who raised concerns. Still, she said she was in favor of increasing the cap — proposing 700 as a "reasonable" amount — and noted that bikes being left somewhere for a long time may actually be a good sign.

"People may actually be using these daily," Beck said. "Let's think about that as a possibility. And if we want to prove people are riding it, then we're probably going to see the bikes showing in the same spots over and over. I think it would be a great idea to have some way to help subsidize this that makes it more accessible for people who use it as a main form of transport."

A more controversial point among council members was whether to keep VeoRide as the sole bike-sharing company in the area.

Council members Matt Gladney, Tom Bruno, Brix and Mayor Deb Feinen all staunchly opposed having a sole provider.

"I really wish we had a second or third provider; I think it's better for our community," Bruno said. "Competition in the marketplace is generally an advantage."

Feinen said that while it may be easier to create a system for fines with just one provider, she was not in favor of keeping VeoRide as the only game in town.

"I'm a free-market person," Feinen said. "I think VeoRide is amazing, and I'm a community cheerleader for them as much as I can be. But it might be that some other bike company is way better than they are, and we just don't even know it."

Beck said she was "fine with the concept" of keeping VeoRide as the sole provider, but would like staff to come back to the council with more information on pros and cons for that.

Another issue before the council was whether to increase the $600 application fee currently in place for any future bike-sharing company. Feinen suggested something different to just increasing the fee.

"Rather than negotiating a fee increase, why don't we have a scholarship-type situation for people in need?" Feinen said. "Maybe students at Central who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Let's do something that benefits the people we want to benefit, instead of collecting money for work we already pay someone to do."