For some N.C. State University students and others near campus, a trip from point A to point B begins by looking for a lime green bike.
LimeBike, a California company, has brought its bike-share program to N.C. State University at the invitation of the school’s transportation department. Three hundred of the company’s bright green bikes were set out on campus as students returned on Aug. 16, and since then more than 1,400 people have downloaded the company’s mobile app that lets them unlock a bike and charges them for the time they’re using it.
The first ride is free. After that, students, faculty and staff pay 50 cents per half hour of ride time; everyone else pays $1. There’s no cost to the university. In the first week and a half, people used LimeBikes about 5,000 times, said Mike Kennon, NCSU’s assistant director for transportation planning and operations.
Evan Miller has used LimeBike about a dozen times, mostly to get from his apartment to his girlfriend’s dorm. “It turns a 20-minute walk into a 3-minute ride,” he said. Miller, a sophomore from Asheville, says LimeBike is better than owning a bike, because he doesn’t have to worry about where it is.
“It’s like having a bike except your bike is everywhere at once,” he said.
LimeBike marks the introduction of bike-sharing to Raleigh. The idea that someone can rent or use a bicycle only when it’s needed, then leave it behind for the next person, has taken many forms in cities around the world. The city of Raleigh plans to roll out its version of bike-sharing next spring, with a series of docking stations, mostly downtown and near college campuses, where bikes can be checked out and returned.
LimeBike uses wireless technology to eliminate the need for stations. The app tells users where to find a bike, then unlocks it, starting the clock that determines how much the rider is billed. The rider stops the clock by locking the bike.
LimeBike has two employees in Raleigh who, among other things, can track the location of its 300 bikes using GPS. The distance the bikes can go from campus is limited only by how far people ride them; LimeBikes have ended up downtown, in Five Points, Garner and at the Target at Cary’s Crossroads, says Matt Phillips, the local LimeBike manager. If a bike winds up in a remote location and isn’t used for a day or two, Phillips or someone else from LimeBike will retrieve it and return it to campus.
“I’m a cowboy for bikes,” Phillips said. “I’m the bike shepherd. When they go astray, I make sure they get back to where they need to be and are safe.”
Thefts are rare, according to LimeBike. Not only is the bike locked when it’s not in use, the GPS system allows the company to follow them.
“We can see where all of them are,” Phillips said.
‘100 percent more fun’
The NCSU program is not limited to people who work or attend the university. Of the 1,400 accounts, 1,000 were opened with NCSU email addresses, suggesting that the rest are not affiliated with the university.
One of the accounts belongs to Christopher Ragland, a cycling evangelist who happened upon a LimeBike recently when he was putting up flyers for his company, Crank Arm Rickshaws, around campus. He downloaded the app, put his flyers in the bike’s basket and rode around campus.
“Made it 100 percent more fun,” he said, adding that the presence of bike share “inspires people to ride bikes.”
N.C. Central University started a bike-share program this month, too, using bicycles from Zagster, a Massachusetts company. The NCCU program is limited to students, faculty and staff who pay a membership fee in exchange for free trips under two hours on weekdays and three hours on weekends. Duke University had a bike-share program that used Zagster bikes starting in 2014, but it was discontinued after the student government voted to stop providing financial support for it.
NCSU’s bike-share program originated with a request from the student government, Kennon said. He said the university decided to give LimeBike a try after learning about the company’s program at UNC-Greensboro, which started in June. Less than a year old, LimeBike now has programs in seven cities and at six universities across the country.
NCSU decided to test the program with 300 bikes this fall, to gauge not only demand but also whether people would park the bikes where they would not get in the way, Kennon said. The university is urging riders to park them at or near bike racks, and is installing new racks on campus.
“What we don’t want to see is bikes just parked haphazardly everywhere,” he said.
The university will determine in December whether to increase the number of LimeBikes when students return in January. For its part, LimeBike is eager to add more bikes to NCSU, where it says the initial growth in ridership has been among the fastest for the company.
“We hope to continue this partnership with NCSU,” company spokesman Jack Song wrote in an email. “It is a greener and more affordable way for students, faculty, and the university community to travel that short distance. A successful bike-share program requires a proper fleet of bikes that riders can have access to on demand.”
NCSU doesn’t want LimeBike to be seen as competition with the city’s bike-share program set to begin next spring, Kennon said. The city program will have a couple of stations near campus, he said, but wouldn’t provide the number of bikes on campus to meet the needs of students.
The city program will cost about $2 million to get started, with the bulk of that coming from a $1.6 million federal grant. Sponsorships by local businesses will help cover operating costs. The city’s program will start with 30 docking stations and 300 bikes, some of which will have electric motors.
“Ideally it would be nice for everyone to have a unified front, with a single brand,” said city transportation planning director Eric Lamb. But with two programs putting more bicycles on the street, Lamb said, “from a market standpoint, I think that’s really positive.”
It’s not unusual for cities to have more than one bike-share system; three bike-share companies are now operating in Seattle, and a fourth is on the way.
Phillips said he thinks the city’s system will focus more on downtown, while LimeBike will serve the university and, perhaps in the future, outlying greenways.
“It’s not a competition with us. It’s augmentation,” he said. “It’s spreading the ability for more people to get on a saddle and pedal.”
For more information about NCSU’s LimeBike program, go to www2.acs.ncsu.edu/trans/wolftrails/limebike.html.