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  1. Transportation

St. Petersburg's bike share program off to a promising start

Nicole Ruiz, 23, rents a bike from St. Petersburg’s Coast Bike Share program with her friend, Chris Alexander, 32. The pair stopped at a rack near the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club so Ruiz could rent a bike, then rode to Green Bench Brewing Co. together for beers.
Published Dec. 18, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — On a recent sunny Wednesday afternoon, Nicole Ruiz decided to try a new app along the waterfront.

She wasn't chasing Pokémon. Instead she and a friend, Chris Alexander, made their way to a rack of bikes near the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club.

"This is so cool," said Ruiz, 23, as the St. Petersburg resident fiddled with her phone to figure out how to release the bike.

Within minutes, Ruiz was pedaling alongside Alexander, 32, on his personal bike. They headed to Green Bench Brewing Co.

Alexander, newly arrived from Winter Park, said the bike share was another reason he doesn't regret moving to St. Petersburg.

"I'm never going to leave this town," he quipped as they prepared for a leisurely ride west for beer.

Ruiz and Alexander aren't the only satisfied customers. Early results for the city's fledgling bike share program look promising.

During November, the first full month of the Coast Bike Share program's soft launch, plenty of people took the 100 bikes spread around 10 hubs for surprisingly long spins — most of them casual users.

Some quick facts:

An average of 46 trips were taken per day over the month by 524 riders.

The average length of a ride for someone who paid for a single trip was nearly 3 miles.

In all, riders traversed 3,484 miles of the city, venturing as far north as 40th Avenue N, south to 26th Avenue S and west to 37th Street.

A little more than two-thirds of riders chose the one-time, pay-as-you-go option at $8 per hour. The other third bought memberships.

"The territory those trips have covered is really impressive," said St. Petersburg transportation director Evan Mory. "I would call that a surprise. People are not just staying in the core, they're exploring other places."

St. Petersburg is also beginning to figure out what kinds of trips the riders are taking.

Plenty of riders have ended up slipping a bike out from a rack (or hub) near the Vinoy Renaissance and cycling up to Snell Isle, said Eric Trull, program director of Coast Bike Share.

They have also explored Old Southeast, Mory said, and ridden along the bulk of Central Avenue's commercial district.

Program and city officials can track where riders go using the GPS installed on the bikes.

So far, only one-third of the program is operational. By the end of January, another 20-odd hubs and 200 bikes will be added, which will bring the city's fleet up to 300 bikes and more than 30 hubs.

Mory said business owners around downtown are asking for hubs to be placed near their venues.

Increasingly popular around the country as an alternate form of "last mile" transportation, bike shares fill a niche for trips that may be a bit too far for walking, but not far enough for a car ride.

The full launch was originally slated for December, but a glitch obtaining bonds and a backlog in obtaining more durable parts for the bikes pushed it back a month or so, Trull said.

"Seven weeks to go. The pressure is on," Trull said of the Jan. 31 deadline for full implementation.

Coast's bike share operation has been active in Tampa for two years, but Trull predicts St. Petersburg's program will quickly surpass its rival across the bay.

The reason? Geography.

"Tampa's downtown core is surrounded on three sides by water. St. Pete is significantly easier. We're fortunate to have the grid system," Trull said.

In fact, 11 percent of St. Petersburg riders are from Tampa, second only to St. Petersburg's 42 percent. So far, the ridership is overwhelmingly local (64 percent from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties), indicating a mix of curious locals, commuters and day-trippers from the Tampa Bay region, according to ZIP codes culled from riders' credit cards. However, riders from 28 states have tried the bikes.

The city is spending $1.5 million for the program, buying bikes and other infrastructure up front. For the next three years, all maintenance and operational costs will be handled by Coast.

Getting the program up and running has been a political fight. Last October, Mayor Rick Kriseman announced he wanted to use $1 million in BP settlement money to fund the program. After City Council members balked, preferring to use more money to fix sewage problems, the amount was gradually whittled down to $250,000. Council members approved it in April.

The balance of the money for the program comes from the city's parking revenue and transportation fees, Mory said.

City Council member Darden Rice said the bike share's early returns "speak for themselves."

"It is always a push getting a new program started, but once people see its success they value it greatly," she said. "It is one more thing that makes St. Pete special."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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