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Houston’s booming bike-share system is reshaping a car-centric city

As Houston BCycle rapidly expands, the biggest jump in ridership has come from people swapping out car trips in favor of a bike–in a city where less than 7% of people walk, bike, or take transit to work.

Houston’s booming bike-share system is reshaping a car-centric city
[Photo: courtesy BCycle]

For a bike-share system, annual ridership growth of around 10% is good. That’s what Motivate, the largest bike-share provider in the U.S., touted as its across-the-board growth metric for its seven systems in 2017.

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If ridership changes across bike-share systems in the U.S. from last year to now were mapped, Houston would pull the whole chart out of alignment. The local system, BCycle, which is run as a nonprofit, saw an over 65% increase in trips taken compared to this time last year. Much of that is due to the fact that last year the system doubled in size to reach more riders.

In 2016, Houston BCycle secured a $3.5 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration, which was delivered through the Texas Department of Transportation to fund the system expansion. That year, the system was still tiny, with 33 stations and just over 100,000 annual trips. Now, the number of stations is up to 90, with 38 left to be rolled out through the grant funding. Last year, annual ridership hovered around 165,858 trips, and just a few months into 2019, BCycle is projecting, based off current numbers, that the number of rides this year will top 250,000.

[Photo: courtesy BCycle]

That’s a huge jump for any bike-share system, but especially significant in Houston, which is one of the U.S.’s most car-dominant cities: Just around 7% of city residents walk, bike, or take transit to work, according to the last Census count. “You can just look at those numbers–it’s clear people love their cars,” says Henry Morris, Houston BCycle’s director of development and communications.

BCycle initially focused on just getting people on bikes in the city for any reason. When Morris started at the nonprofit around a year and a half ago, around 70% of the rides were taken for recreation. “That was great, but not exactly fulfilling the potential of bike share to replace car trips,” Morris says.

Now, the nonprofit is doubling down on shifting its demographic from people who use the bikes to ride recreationally through the parks or along the bayous, to people who ride to work or carry out errands they would have otherwise done by car. Its recent expansion over the past year has given rise, BCycle estimates, to a 177% increase in one-way trips (signifying a commute or errand), and a 25% increase in recreational trips, that often start and end at the same station. It’s also been careful to expand close to the city’s bus and light rail stations to encourage multimodal transportation. BCycle now estimates it’s at 53% one-way ridership, a significant rise in people viewing bikes as a way to get around the city.

[Photo: courtesy BCycle]

BCycle has deliberately designed its expansion to encourage this. Through the grant, Houston BCycle has been able to put in what they call “mini-networks”: deliberately planned clusters of bike-share stations in neighborhoods or areas that previously lacked access. In the Third Ward, one of Houston’s oldest historically black neighborhoods, BCycle used the grant money along with additional funds from Texas Southern University and University of Houston to set up two new clusters of five stations last year.

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Because Houston BCycle is a nonprofit, every station has to be “sponsored” by a local partner. For the ones rolled out last year, the grant funding covered around 80% of the costs, and the local business–whether it be a university or a company—brought in the remaining 20%. BCycle is consciously working to expand to other, typically lower-income neighborhoods that lack access to the network, but wants to do so in a way that won’t put an excess cost burden on local businesses. The nonprofit is also exploring ways to secure additional funding through other grant programs or through local business management districts. “Whatever neighborhood we go into, the approach will be the same–keep the stations as dense as possible, and create these mini-networks so people will be able to use the bikes to move through them,” Morris says.

What’s more, Morris says, is the rapid expansion of the bike-share network, along with the uptick of people using the bikes to commute and run errands in the historically car-dominated city, might be influencing Houston’s effort to become more bike- and transit-friendly overall. “Houston is putting in a north-south spine to its bike network that’s going to be crucial,” Morris says, and will complement the bike lane that already runs east-west through downtown. The new bikeway will run past at least six BCycle stations, which was deliberate and shows how the presence of bike share that people use can begin to change cities, even those as car-centric as Houston, to be safer and greener.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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