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Will Clearwater hop on bike-sharing trend?

CLEARWATER — The satellite signal to the computer in the modest blue bike — a box nestled between the seat and rear tire — wasn't working inside the thick walls of the Salvation Army's Joy Center.

But Eric Trull was undeterred.

Quickly punching in a four-digit code, Trull unlocked the bike and, possibly, a vision for Clearwater's future.

"We have the momentum here. Everybody is talking about it. … We're working as a region, finally," Trull, a marketing and outreach employee for Coast Bike Share, told the gathering of neighborhood activists at the Joy Center last week.

It was the first foray to Tampa Bay's third-largest city for Coast, a bike-sharing company that has won the contract to provide Tampa with cruisers that have cushy seats and high handlebars. Coast is in talks with St. Petersburg, Trull said.

Eventually, the company wants to have kiosks every few blocks all over Tampa Bay. Clearwater customers would find a bike by using a smartphone app and rent it for $5 an hour to pedal along the Pinellas Trail, out to Clearwater Beach, or perhaps to a downtown aquarium in a few years.

Monthly or yearly memberships would also be available.

The idea is to give people an option to driving or walking in densely populated areas. The $1,500 bikes are "virtually indestructible" and built for easy pedaling under 12 mph.

The bikes don't have chains either, which massively reduces their maintenance costs, he said.

The Clearwater Neighborhood Coalition appeared receptive to Trull's pitch last week.

"We got to start somewhere," said JoAnna Siskin, who lives in the Skycrest neighborhood and bikes to work. Adopting a bike-share program could also help correct what she said is Clearwater's image as a city that lags a step behind.

"Do we always want to be the last city to do anything?" she asked.

Others weren't so sure. Doug Williams, who lives in Countryside, said his trips around downtown are easily accomplished on foot. He wasn't sure there was a market for bike sharing.

"I'm a little fuzzy as to the big picture," Williams said.

Bike-sharing has been around in the United States for about five years, Trull said. Last year, New York City and Chicago launched programs, joining Washington, D.C., Boulder, Colo., and other cities.

Getting a program started in Clearwater would require about $1 million to deploy around 300 bikes. For Coast to make that investment out of its own pocket would take four or five years, Trull said.

But those blue bikes could reach Clearwater sooner if the City Council decided to pitch in, he suggested, saying he hoped neighborhood coalition members would push the city to help fund the program.

The Tampa City Council gave Coast, which is the local presence of Miami Beach-based CycleHop, access to city rights-of-way for its kiosks but no direct financial support, Trull said. That program should launch this spring, he said.

City Manager Bill Horne said bike-sharing is an interesting idea for Clearwater, especially as the downtown aquarium project takes shape, but it needs to be studied.

"I don't see a compelling reason to just run and establish a bike-sharing program just because other cities are doing it," Horne said.

If Clearwater does decide to pursue the idea, he said, it won't be a "knee-jerk response."

Bike-sharing is a good idea, but one that is probably about probably six months to a year early, said Vice Mayor Doreen Hock-DiPolito.

Attention needs to be focused first on the November vote on the Greenlight Pinellas initiative to expand bus service and build a light-rail line between St. Petersburg and Clearwater, she said.

Hock-DiPolito recently used a bike-share bicycle while in New York City with her daughter and said the public-private partnership in that city needs to be pursued in Clearwater. In New York, the Citi Bike program doesn't use taxpayer money. Much of the funding comes from Citigroup Inc., a multinational bank.

"We need to engage the private sector on this," she said. "I think it's an absolutely fabulous idea."

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.

Will Clearwater hop on bike-sharing trend? 04/04/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2014 6:56pm]
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