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Sunday, 02 August 2015 22:00

Nonprofit partners with Spokefly GR in new bike-sharing service

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In launching its bike-sharing service in downtown Grand Rapids, Spokefly GR tapped local nonprofit The Spoke Folks to provide maintenance and other services. The nonprofit saw the contract as a way to get a revenue stream in an area that fit with its mission that it can use to support other projects and programming, said Executive Director Jay Niewiek. In launching its bike-sharing service in downtown Grand Rapids, Spokefly GR tapped local nonprofit The Spoke Folks to provide maintenance and other services. The nonprofit saw the contract as a way to get a revenue stream in an area that fit with its mission that it can use to support other projects and programming, said Executive Director Jay Niewiek. PHOTO: JAYSON BUSSA

GRAND RAPIDS — To launch its new bike-sharing service, Spokefly GR turned to a local nonprofit for help.

Spokefly GR, which staged its grand opening on July 23 at Rosa Parks Circle, offers rentals of 65 bikes that it put into circulation around downtown Grand Rapids. The entire program runs through the Spokefly mobile app, but the nonprofit

The Spoke Folks provides the boots on the ground handling the logistics (i.e., the bike repairs) for the bike-share service.

In its third year of existence, The Spoke Folks serves as a local bicycle co-op that provides resources to get people on bikes, in addition to teaching residents how to repair and maintain them. The organization holds bike rides and offers open shop hours at its headquarters at 221 Logan St. SW.

When presented with the opportunity to partner in the bike-sharing service, Executive Director Jay Niewiek said it was a natural fit for the organization, which has since been contracted to run the daily operations of Spokefly GR.

“The Spoke Folks are just in charge, operationally, of making sure that they’re well-maintained bikes, which obviously aligns well with our mission,” Niewiek said. “It works well just because we want to make sure people have access to bikes. This is one more way that people have access to bikes as a way of getting around the city. For us, that is where it was kind of a no-brainer.”

David Bell is at the helm of the for-profit entity fueling Spokefly GR. He said the group is comprised of “targeted investors” with “like-minded principles,” who all chipped in smaller dollar amounts to get the venture off the ground.

Similarly to Niewiek, Bell saw collaboration with The Spoke Folks as a great opportunity for his company.

“Spoke Folks is a great organization with a specific mission and vision,” said Bell, who serves as an engineer in his day job. “They are not set up to launch a bike-sharing system. What we did was give them the capacity to do that.”

While the program requires extensive attention from The Spoke Folks, Niewiek said the opportunity also helps bolster the organization in its other endeavors. It’s an example of a nonprofit getting creative in identifying a source of revenue that fit its mission.

“We hired a person full-time to take care of this. What we’re really excited about is that we’ve had some things we wanted to focus on community-wise that we haven’t been able to do because of financial constraints,” Niewiek said. “This is going to provide an additional revenue stream so that we can then focus on some things that maybe aren’t necessarily financially viable but are still vital and important to the city.”

NON-TRADITIONAL MODEL

Spokefly GR operates as a hybrid between two popular bike-share models. Bell said that his company took pieces from a strictly peer-to-peer model and mashed them up with a traditional city model, where bikes are rented and returned to various docking stations throughout a municipality.

Under the Spokefly GR system, the service runs through the company’s mobile-based application, and the program leverages the existing bike infrastructure throughout downtown Grand Rapids. This means that bikes are locked up on existing racks — something viewed as an advantage because it allows users to bike directly to their destination, rather than park at a dock and walk the remainder of the way.

To pull off such a system, Niewiek and Bell worked with the San Francisco-based app developer Nate McGuire, who created Spokefly. Originally designed as a peer-to-peer bike sharing app, Spokefly customized its system just for the Grand Rapids market.

“We saw (Spokefly) and thought it was an interesting model — he had developed it as a pure peer-to-peer bike sharing app more akin to Spinlister,” Bell said.

“What we did was take that and said, ‘OK, what are the best parts of that model and let’s compare it to the best parts of the traditional leading bike-share models in places like Chicago, D.C. and New York.’ We mashed those two things together.”

The program launched with a modest number of bikes, but at the grand opening, Bell said the intention was to beef up the fleet to 400 bicycles by the spring, as well as offer different models. All of the program’s current bikes come with a basket and bell.

“What we put together is not aimed at the rich, young person in spandex — it’s about mobility,” Bell said of the program. “We’re choosing to launch the system with step-through bikes to accommodate people who might have hip problems or ladies in skirts.”

TESTING VIABILITY

The grand opening of Spokefly GR comes amid recommendations by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. that the city adopt a bike-share program by the year 2017 that could tip the scales at $2 million in terms of startup costs.

The recommendation was made as a part of the GR Forward plan, and now DGRI officials can look to Spokefly GR’s private endeavor to see how well the concept is received.

“We’re curious to see how it pans out and the usage it gets,” said Bill Kirk, mobility manager at DGRI. “At the end of the day, it is great there will be more bikes out there for people, whether they don’t have a car or they just want a different way to get around.”

Kirk called the model both interesting and nimble. With bike-sharing programs only coming to prominence since 2007, there are a variety of models in the market, none of them necessarily considered the gold standard just yet, he said.

The data churned out by Spokefly GR would also shed light on the city’s bicycle needs.

“Jay and I had discussions about the usefulness of some of the data,” Kirk said. “The back-end of the app tracks things like where bikes are getting used and dropped off. I think a user even has the ability to request a location. They’ll have some really good data.”

Despite the bike sharing recommendations that came out of GR Forward, DGRI has no specific plans, outside of general fact-gathering, to get into the bike-sharing service at this point, Kirk said. He did note, however, that there are many instances nationally in which private and public bike-share programs coexist.

Even outside of the bike-sharing program, Kirk spoke highly of The Spoke Folks and the group’s work to make Grand Rapids a more bike-friendly community.

“They’re a great partner and a great asset to the community,” Kirk said. “I’m a really big fan of the empowerment model — not just getting people to ride bikes, but teaching about maintenance where they can work on it themselves.”

 

Read 2481 times Last modified on Sunday, 09 August 2015 09:38
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

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