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Denver Transportation, Part Three: B-cycle, Where the Rubber Meets the Road

A B-cycle station in Cherry Creek.

A B-cycle bicycle.

A B-cycle station.

B-cyclists buzzing the Denver City and County Building.

What happens when thousands of affordable rental bikes, more than 300 sunny days, an advocacy group, hundreds of miles of bike paths and a cheerleading mayor converge on an idea? Denver B-cycle, the nation's first citywide automated bike-sharing program.
This is the third feature in a three-part series covering the future of transportation in Denver. Before: Car sharing and Front Range rail.

It was a green dream: make the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Denver the most environmentally friendly political convention ever, in part by offering free bike rentals around downtown. During four days of 2008 convention hoopla, more than 5,000 rides were taken and the idea to become the nation's first bike-sharing city became a reality. 
"It was a magic moment with the convention, which allowed people to work together really hard and to see things differently," says Parry Burnap, executive director of Denver Bike Sharing. 
The DNC phenomenon evolved into Denver's bike-sharing program, B-cycle, which has become a model for bike-sharing programs in such cities as Chicago and Minneapolis.
With B-cycle, you just put in your card, grab a bike, scoot around the city, return the bike and go home.
After only four years, Denver B-cycle, which is owned and operated by the nonprofit Denver Bike Sharing, is growing. This year, the program will add 27 new stations bringing total stations to 79. The system, which reopens for the season in March, now has about 700 bikes in all.
"One of the reasons B-cycle is working so well in Denver is Denver already has a very active population," says Dan Grunig, executive director of Bicycle Colorado, a 20-year-old nonprofit statewide advocacy group for cyclists. "People want to use active transportation, to bike and to walk, to get to work, to play, to school -- it's part of Denver's brand."
Grunig cites a recent Brookings Institution survey that named Denver as the top city in the country for 25- to 44-year-olds to move. "Bicycling is playing a big role in that," he says. "Denver's downtown population is growing and that's right where B-cycle is. More bicycling is what people are asking for in Colorado and B-cycle is just exploding to the point where businesses are asking to have a station nearby."
A B-cycle station.Ahead of the Curve
The conceptualization of Denver B-cycle's was a confluence of ideas, funding and environment. The city was reviewing its public works strategic transportation plan, the DNC was coming to town, years of bicycling advocacy work was already in place and grant money -- upwards of $1 million -- was designated for the program. 
Denver, as a place, had its own draw -- more than 300 days of sunshine, low humidity, relatively flat land, a fit population, wide streets that can be adapted to include bikes (unlike some East Coast cities with narrow avenues) and 80 miles of paved off-road bike trails. 
"It was more like riding a wave and putting all these positive pieces together," Burnap says. "We didn't hit a lot of barriers or skepticism."
With sponsorship from health care giant Humana, Burnap and her team got 1,000 bikes for the 35,000 expected DNC visitors. The free bikes could be borrowed and returned at six downtown stations. 
Denver B-cycle officially launched on April 22, 2010. By the end of the year, the program had more than 500 bikes and 50 stations. The long-term plan is to have 150 stations in Denver and some surrounding areas. The new stations going up in 2013 will be sprinkled south and west of the downtown core, filling in mass transit gaps and complementing other bike sharing stations. 
Businesses want B-cycle docking stations because there is room for several bikes at each station compared to a limited number of parking spaces in many neighborhoods. 
Grunig expects the development of LoDo's historic Union Station into a multi-modal transportation hub will only increase the level of interest in bicycling in Denver.
"The next wave you're going to see is when Union Station comes online," he says. "B-cycle will have an integral role in moving people to and from transit."
Addressing the fact that many other large cities also have bike sharing programs Grunig still gives bragging rights to Denver. 
"Even though it may not be the largest, Denver was the first to roll out a bike sharing program on a large scale," he says. "It was a large-scale demonstration project that showed that this worked and Denver was the first to roll it out on a big scale in America." Given the city's increasing downtown residential population, Grunig speculates that a "number of bikes per downtown residents" estimation might still show it to be the largest such program in the country. 
As more people ride bikes there are safety concerns and Grunig is confident that increased awareness combined with improved infrastructure will catch up. "A third of the people in Colorado can't or don't drive," he says. "Our public roads have to serve everybody in the public whether they are eight years old or 80 years old."
Pedal PushersB-cyclists buzzing the Denver City and County Building.
Data from 2011 shows ridership is up almost 50 percent from 2010; short-term memberships are up by approximately 30 percent; and more than 400,000 miles have been ridden. 
The bikes' internal computers also track calories burned (almost 13 million in 2011); pounds lost (more than 3,700 in 2011); and carbon emission offset (more than 800,000 pounds in 2011). 
Denver B-cycle is funded through grants, sponsorships and membership fees. As the program grows, Burnap says business owners may offer to pay for nearby docking stations. 
"We know in order to survive and grow and meet our vision of being available to everybody, we need to be in more places," says Burnap. "When we put our first stations in they were intended to relieve congestion in core urban area and then grow out from the middle." 
Street's Eye View
Capitol Hill resident and University of Colorado at Denver student Carli Dean, wrestled with the frustrations of owning a car in the city -- limited on-street parking and expensive downtown parking near the Auraria campus and her job. So when she spotted a new Denver B-cycle station one block from her apartment, she knew she had found a solution.
"I worked on the 16th Street Mall and there were stations everywhere that I could park a bike and be at work in less than a five-minute walk," Dean says. "I recommended it to all of my friends and anytime I had someone come visit, I preferred we used that to get around rather than walking."
Denver visitors and residents are the only ones taking note of Denver B-cycle -- municipal planners are as well. "We hear from other cities weekly," Burnap says. 
In a 2012 Alliance for Walking and Bicycling report, Denver ranked fourth in the country for levels of bicycle commuting to work and noted a 46 percent increase in the numbers of workers commuting by bike between 2005 and 2009. 
"At our current size, Denver B-cycle is a stable business and a terrific amenity for Denver's guests and residents, but we are not changing the world, yet," Burnap says. "This expansion will boost us into a whole new level of service in which we begin to serve as a more prevalent and reliable component of Denver's balanced multi-modal transportation system." 

Read more articles by Mindy Sink.

Mindy is a freelance writer and author of Walking DenverMoon Handbooks Guide to Denver and co-author of Colorado Organic: Cooking Seasonally, Eating Locally
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