Public bike share systems work best when civic officials get behind them, invested in their success. That’s especially true when those officials are in leadership positions: mayors and council members have both the moral and civic authority to ensure that the systems are optimized.
So what happens when the mayor of a small town is also a graduate student investigating the role of shared personal mobility systems in the overall scheme of public transport? Magic happens. You might even say alchemy.
That’s the case in Avon, Colorado, a small town in the Rocky Mountains, just west of Vail at the base of the Beaver Creek ski area. Home to about 7,000 people, Avon is served by bus routes operated by the Eagle County Transit, known as ECO Transit. But like many towns, it faced a classic last mile problem, getting people to and from their homes or places of employment and the closest bus stop.
That’s where Zagster comes in. Avon chose Zagster after a lengthy review process to determine which bike share operator could best support a small program in a small town and would help the region’s efforts to be more multi-modal in its approach to transport, with a special emphasis on being pedestrian- and cyclist-firiendly. The project launched in the summer of 2016, and since then, “It’s worked out really well,” says Avon’s mayor, Jennie Fancher. “We don’t see incredibly high numbers, but we see year-over-year growth and strong use of the 24 or so bikes around town, serving the last mile very well.”
Fancher knows well the dynamics of the last mile. She’s wrapping up studies for a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Colorado in Denver, and her capstone project—a practical thesis in which she helps a client research a problem—looks at how bike share programs can work in small towns and rural areas. Fancher’s client is ECO Transit, and the answer is, very well thanks.
The key is making sure bike stations are located near where they’ll get the most use. “Our stations are located at bus stops and near the highest-density residential areas,” she says, explaining that like many municipalities in the Mountain and Intermountain West, lower-income residents of towns like Avon typically live in the high-density parts of town, the opposite of housing trends on the coasts. “The wealthier people are looking for solitude,” she explains.
Another important detail: flexibility. “You have to be willing to try things and move things around,” Fancher says. When Zagster launched in Avon, there was no bike station at Nottingham Beach, a popular area that serves as the town’s summer recreation hub, and which has extremely limited parking. So when the town expanded the program, Nottingham Beach got a Zagster station. “It’s great because now people use the bikes instead of cars when they want to go to the beach,” the mayor says.
Two more findings have come from Fancher’s work: dockless systems don’t seem to work in remote communities, and e-bikes are a logical next step in encouraging riders to use the vehicles to get up and down the hillier parts of town. “With dockless programs, people can ride the bikes out of the area and we can’t use them,” she explains. “And the mountains here are so steep that if we want to encourage people to ride to work, and they have a hospitality job, they’re going to need the boost of a small motor. It’s a hygiene issue.”
Fancher’s conclusion for any group considering bike sharing for a small town? “If you build it, they will come,” she says. “If you just go for it, it will take off. Growth is what you’re looking for. Growth means the system is working. A lot of people think you need to have the infrastructure in place before you put a sharing system in, but you don’t. Demand for that can follow usage.”
And whom would she suggest is the best partner for small and mid-size towns? “Zagster,” she says. “A clear relationship with the provider is key, and we have that with Zagster. Everybody understands expectations, data collection, right of way. Availability of bikes is the key to success, and Zagster’s rebalancing efforts makes sure that bikes are available. They’re great.”