At a gathering earlier this month of the young professional group Emerge Tampa Bay, Jeff Huddleston, chief financial officer of the startup GO!BYKE, took his turn at the wireless mic and calmly challenged the guests of honor — Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, City Councilman Mike Suarez and County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. Just what, he asked, are the city and the county doing about bike sharing?
“Not enough, and not soon enough,” the mayor responded, saying his administration was “absolutely behind” such an effort. He added, “I think somebody can make money off it.”
But can they? And will they even try in the Tampa Bay area?
Approximately 16 bike sharing systems have sprouted across the U.S. in the past few years in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver and Chicago, with another dozen on tap. Just last week Citigroup announced it would spend $41 million to sponsor New York City’s bicycle-share program, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg said will be the largest such system in the U.S. when it launches in July.
Bike sharing (not to be confused with bike rental) follows in the tracks of innovative businesses like Zipcar, the car sharing service in which members pay an annual fee plus per-hour charges to drive vehicles with no extra cost for gas, insurance or miles.
As Daniel Gross writes in his new book Better, Stronger, Faster: The Myth of American Decline and the Rise of a New Economy, the trend ties into the rising popularity of renting vs. owning in America.
Gross writes that “it has spurred the creation and growth of innovative business in a number of other realms — particularly those that cater to America’s cash-strapped, credit-wary youth.”
Although many of the bike sharing programs around the U.S. include some government involvement, entrepreneurs in both Tampa and St. Pete aren’t asking for any subsidies from the taxpayers.
This would not be the first bike-sharing go-round for either Tampa or St. Pete. Fifteen years ago, the Tampa Downtown Partnership began a “Borrow-a-Bike” program using 50 bikes from the Tampa Police Department’s cache of unclaimed stolen property. A week into the program, the “Orangecycles,” as they were called, had been stolen (again), and the program was history. In 2008, proponents of bike sharing in St. Petersburg attempted a program called Bike Green. Six months in, about 100 of those neon green bikes had been stolen, too.
Now one of Bike Green’s originators, Andrew Blikken, has formed a company called MyBike, which he says is geared toward being a “bike library” for St. Pete and the beaches. According to a proposal submitted to the city, the bicycles will be equipped with “smart boxes” so that they can be found remotely using an automated cell phone service that will alert the company to track the bikes using GPS. He says people would be able to check out bikes via the Internet or a mobile app.
Cheryl Stacks, bicycle-pedestrian coordinator in St. Pete, says that Blikken’s plan still needs more work, but that the city looks forward to signing a licensing agreement with him. She says the city has also had discussions with B-Cycle, a national bike sharing company that is now operating in 15 cities.
Blikken’s MyBike proposal calls for a user fee of $2 an hour, or $20 a month. Monthly subscribers would then pay $2 an hour after the first hour.
But there’s one hitch — startup money. Anyone got a spare million?
“I don’t know if you’ve ever done that,” says Blikken of the formidable prospect of raising that amount of cash. “It’s a challenge,” the Pilot Point, Texas native says, laughing. But starting a bike sharing business is something he’s been psyched to do since traveling to Copenhagen six years ago.
After his partnership with Bike Green folded, he shelved the bike sharing idea for a few years before attending DeVry University’s Keller Graduate School of Management in Tampa for his MBA, where, like Al Pacino in Godfather III, he got sucked back in. That’s where he met three classmates — Huddleston, Jon Perez and Sonya Suon — and they focused on a new plan.
But business differences emerged — Blikken wanted to concentrate on St. Pete and the beaches, with the other three opting to focus on Tampa/Hillsborough County — and they went their separate ways.
Blikken, 29, says he sometimes gets frustrated at not yet seeing his dream grow to fruition. But then he quickly cheers up, saying that he has three potential manufacturers “interested in partnering with us,” that he is scheduled to meet in the next few weeks.
Many of the details of St. Pete’s MyBike and Tampa’s GO!BYKE are similar.
Like Blikken, GO!BYKE CFO Jeff Huddleston says issues of funding have been an obstacle. He says some venture capitalists have expressed strong interest — but only after the city gives its official imprimatur.
He says Tampa city officials haven’t said outright that they’ll be on board if the company gets funding, but that’s the implication. In any case, Mayor Buckhorn told Huddleston after the Emerge Tampa Bay meeting that any city involvement would have to be delayed until after the Republican National Convention.
But when those conversations resume, Tampa officials should be heartened to know that Huddleston and his two business partners, Jon Perez and Sonya Suon, won’t be returning to them with hat in hand. They’re opting instead for angel investors to kickstart their service. (Calls to officials in both the Transportation and Parks and Recreation department in Tampa went unreturned.)
GO!BYKE’s program would work this way: Memberships would cost $15 a month. That would pay for the first 30 minutes free, and $2 for every 30 minutes after that, up to two hours. After that, it would be $10 an hour. You wouldn’t have to be a member to join, but would have to pay $2 for the first 30 minutes.
In addition, the company intends to have poster-sized ads on their bicycle kiosks and are looking to a large corporation to “co-brand” the bikes.
GO!BYKE execs frequently reference as an inspiration DecoBikes in Miami/Miami Beach, billed as the first privately funded city-wide bike sharing system in North America. In March DecoBike celebrated its first year in service, having logged nearly 720,000 rides.
GO!BYKE members speak reverently about Colby Reese, chief marketing officer for DecoBike, whom they’ve frequently consulted in preparing their business plan (Reese did not respond to CL’s call for comment).
Chief Operating Officer Jon Perez says the company would also pay Tampa for any loss of space, so that if metered parking spaces are used to house a kiosk (conceivably holding between 8 to 12 bikes), GO!BYKE would pay for the lost revenues.
GO!BYKE would track bikes using the same technology as Andrew Blikken. Their goals would be to have around 50 kiosks housing approximately 10-12 bikes each scattered around the city, hopefully spreading tenfold in the years to come. Customers would have to have a credit card or driver’s license showing them to be 18 years of age or older to legally use the system.
The leading Svengali of the bicycling movement in the Bay area, Swiftbud’s Alan Snel, tells CL he can’t comment specifically on GO!BYKE’s proposal because he hasn’t studied it. He does say that “cities across the country have embraced bike share programs because bicycles are practical and affordable ways of getting around urban centers and to and from such places as museums, restaurants and entertainment districts. It’s another reason why cities should invest in bicycle infrastructure because the proliferation of bike share programs show that there is public demand for practical bicycle use.”
GO!BYKE’s chief marketing officer, Sonya Suon, says the company hopes to work with local business owners and offer restaurant gift certificates to those who ride a certain amount of miles a month (which can be verified by their GPS system).
Karen Kress with the Downtown Tampa Partnership says her organization fully supports bike sharing, and has already mapped out a number of potential docking station locations. Kress is working on a grant that would help get a program working in downtown.
At the meeting where Huddleston publicly stated his dream of bike sharing in Tampa, Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a strong advocate for alternative transportation, remarked on the area’s dismal reputation for bike safety, and lashed out at those who designed the county as “being a bunch of old guys who don’t ride bikes.”
But is Tampa’s layout appropriate for such an ambitious program? The Downtown Partnership’s Karen Kress says she believes downtown Tampa is “surprisingly bikeable, with slower moving traffic, numerous bike lanes and off road trails,” and lots of destinations that would be easily reached via bike.
Andrew Blikken calls St. Petersburg a “perfect city” for bike sharing, “absolutely flawless in so many different ways.” The city’s bicycle-pedestrian coordinator agrees; Cheryl Stacks says the city’s revised bike ordinance, which allows for bike sharing, gives St. Pete “the foundation that Tampa and some other communities may not have at this time.”
But is the venture capital funding there? That’s the question on both sides of Tampa Bay, as it tries to reach parity with other U.S. cities that are creating the amenities that make them destination points for young professionals — amenities like bike sharing which, so far, the Bay area has lacked.
Adrian Wyllie was not mentioned. He is running for Governor.
Peter's new book is awaited with joy by lovers of poetry and his cool take…
Eeeeeeehhhh aaaahhhh, this is Sam Carollo, I am a legitimate business man, I resent the…
It is wonderful to see the KaBOOM! playground as a part of this transformation. I…