TAMPA — Tampa soon could have a public bike-rental program similar to those in New York and Washington, D.C.
The first bikes — with Kevlar tires, grease-free drive shafts, anti-theft GPS technology and bells on the handlebars — are expected in the fall.
"It's a natural," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Wednesday, especially as more people live downtown. "It lends itself to the urban experience and helps create an environment downtown that is walkable, that is ridable, that is retail-oriented and pedestrian-friendly."
Program operator CycleHop of Miami Beach and vendor Social Bicycles of New York City propose an initial deployment of 300 bicycles and 450 bike racks at 30 parking stations around downtown, Ybor City and Bayshore Boulevard.
Riders could rent the bikes using a credit card. They also could rent helmets from a solar-powered dispenser that would sanitize the helmets and replace their liners upon their return. The bikes themselves would have seats that could be adjusted for riders from 5 feet 1 to 6 feet 6.
The City Council is expected to consider a contract in the next few weeks. There's no cost to the city, which would provide the use of public sidewalks for the bike racks.
"The downside risk is that we try it and it doesn't work," Buckhorn said. "But we'll never know unless we try. As populated as our downtown has become, I think this is something that will work."
The operators propose to expand the system in two phases. First, they would add 200 bikes, 300 racks and 20 stations in and around downtown. Later, they could expand to places like the West Shore business district and University of South Florida — something city officials want by fall 2015.
CycleHop has 19 years of experience in bike-sharing programs in Chicago and Broward County, while Social Bicycles builds and provides "smart bikes" to Buffalo, N.Y., and Sun Valley, Idaho.
"Overall, I think Tampa is an excellent city for bike share," CycleHop CEO Josh Squire said. Its urban core has good density, a significant downtown workforce, lots of visitors and a population of university students.
Over time, CycleHop and Social Bicycles hope to expand the Tampa program throughout the bay area.
While casual users typically make up more of the customer base in most cities than subscription-paying members, "we're going to put a very large emphasis on marketing the program to locals," Squire said. "We want to see significant membership and growth in the Tampa Bay area."
Riders would be able to register for the bikes online, using a mobile application or a keypad on the bike itself. When they finish, they could share their routes and statistics, and program managers could use the data to identify popular routes and good parking locations.
Rental fees would vary. One-day passes would range from $5 for one hour to $25 for a full day. Users also could pay a subscription that would entitle them to ride a bike free for 30 minutes, with more fees for longer rides. The idea is to allow commuters stepping off buses or — in the future — light rail to use the bikes free for the last mile of their trip.
Along with rental fees, the operators would finance the system with sponsorships and advertising on the bikes and at its parking hubs.
Buckhorn said officials chose the CycleHop-Social Bicycles team over two other bidders — Wisconsin-based B-Cycle and DecoBike of Miami Beach — because of the quality of its proposal, its expertise and the fact that it proposed to use less advertising than the others.
"On the bikes is fine," Buckhorn said of the ads, but not on sidewalks. "I'm not adverse to companies making money and branding their product, but I didn't want the racks to be overwhelmed with signage."
The use of cellphones and credit cards to rent the bikes is expected to deter the kind of theft that killed an earlier attempt at bike-sharing.
In 1997, city officials salvaged about 50 unclaimed bikes from police inventory, painted them traffic-cone orange and left them unlocked downtown for anyone to ride.
The Orangecycles' motto was "the bikes with appeal."
The reality was they appealed mainly to thieves. Within weeks, there were no orange bikes to be found. A leader of the program quipped, "we're tempted to say we have 100 percent utilization."
In light of that local history, "it's probably not going to be an orange bike," Squire said.
"I'm not wedded to a color," Buckhorn said, "unless they want to pick Irish green."