TAMPA — City Hall on Wednesday rolled out an old idea with a new twist — a bike-sharing program that would let residents and visitors grab a rental bicycle for a quick ride around town.
After seeing similar programs in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he "came back and said, 'I want this to work here. I want it to happen.'
"Virtually every major metropolitan area that has a downtown that's alive and vibrant has a bike-sharing program," he said. "It adds to the urban experience. It makes sense. It makes us more bicycle-friendly, and environmentally it's helpful."
Tampa's goal is to have 30 stations with 300 rentable bikes throughout downtown, Ybor City and surrounding neighborhoods in fall 2013. The program could be expanded to the West Shore business district and the University of South Florida area by fall 2015.
As proposed, riders would pay a monthly or annual membership fee or use their cellphones or credit cards to rent the bikes on an hourly basis. The use of cellphones and credit cards also would ensure the bikes are returned — the fatal flaw of an effort 15 years ago to create a similar program.
"There is a penalty associated with stealing a bike, and it's going to be on your credit card," Buckhorn said.
Typically, according to a request for proposals issued Wednesday, there would be no fee if the bikes were used for a half-hour or less. Bikes rented from one station could be returned to any other location.
Proposals are due Nov. 7. Buckhorn said he wants to test the market. He could see granting a private-sector vendor a concession for the program. He is not looking to put any city money into the program.
"I don't want the city government in the bike-sharing business," he said. "I want to facilitate a successful bike-sharing program."
The city has tried something like this before, though on a smaller scale, and it was free.
In 1997, city officials salvaged about 50 junker bikes from unclaimed police inventory and painted them a garish orange to make them visible to motorists. The "Orangecycles" were left unlocked throughout downtown for anyone to ride. The program's motto was "the bikes with appeal."
They had appeal, all right. Within a few weeks, the Orangecycles vanished and the effort fizzled. A leader of the program gamely said, "We're tempted to say we have 100 percent utilization."
Since then, city officials say, bike-sharing programs have gone through three distinct phases. The later ones incorporate advanced tracking and locking mechanisms and software for monitoring the bikes' use. The city wants the latest generation, which uses solar-powered portable kiosks, durable all-weather bikes and GPS tracking and radio frequency identification, or RFID, tags.
City officials also envision creating a dual pricing structure so that commuters coming off buses — or, in the future, perhaps, another form of mass transit — could use the bikes for the last mile of their trip.
Officials said the proposed program is part of a larger goal to make Tampa more bicycle-friendly and to expand on its 32.5 miles of trails, bike lanes and routes.
But it could be a challenge reconciling the program with the city's reputation as a deadly place to walk or ride a bike. An annual study by the nonprofit Transportation for America found that Florida was home to four of the five most dangerous metropolitan areas in the nation for pedestrians and cyclists. The Tampa Bay area was second on the list, right behind Orlando-Kissimmee.
This year, the Humana health care company brought a free pedaling option to Tampa for the Republican National Convention, but it wasn't the bike-share program that it did four years ago at the national political conventions in Denver and St. Paul, Minn.
Instead, Humana promoted good health with a supply of 20 pedal buses that seated up to eight pedaling passengers. The reason for the switch, according to a Humana spokesman, was that Tampa didn't have the bike paths and bike lanes the program needed.
Buckhorn said the bike-sharing program should make motorists more aware of cyclists and more respectful of their right to the road.
For now, the city looks to add bike lanes or "sharrows," road markings that indicate motorists must share the road with bicyclists, whenever it widens or improves a road.
In the long run, Buckhorn talks about ideas like "street dieting," reducing the number of lanes on a road and giving the space to bikes or people on foot.
"Florida Avenue would be great," he said. "If we put it on a street diet and took it down to two lanes, three lanes, you could do all kinds of stuff, including bike lanes or wider sidewalks. As the downtown core redefines itself I think bikes are going to be a big part of it."
Tampa cycling advocate Alan Snel applauded the idea of bike-sharing — "it's good to see the mayor appreciating the value of bicycling" — but says the city needs to do more to create a network of bike lanes, paved paths and sharrows.
For example, he said, if the city wants the bike-sharing program to promote pedaling from downtown to Ybor City, why not give half the Nuccio Parkway to cyclists and pedestrians?
"The routine is not bold enough," Snel said. "We don't have a network. We have to go beyond just keeping up."