Chattanooga Bike-Share: Lessons for Smaller Cities

Chattanooga, Tennessee, was, in a lot of ways, not an ideal city for bike-sharing. It’s a somewhat sprawling city, without a strong culture of cycling and walking. In addition, only a small percentage of area residents use transit to get around, so not many are leaving the car in the garage.

Chattanooga is blazing trails as a small bike-sharing city. Image: ## Times Free Press##

But local leaders didn’t use these challenges as excuses not to act to improve public health. This city of 170,000 launched the Chattanooga Bicycle Transit System last July, with 30 stations and 300 bikes dispersed around a 2.5-square mile area of downtown. In doing so, little Chattanooga beat larger cities like New York and Chicago to the punch.

“Our purpose with bike-sharing was to put a large amount of cyclists on the street in a short time, to change the dynamic, to improve our air quality, our health and active transportation overall,” said Chattanooga Bike Coordinator Philip Pugliese, at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Kansas City last week.

Chattanooga had studied bike-sharing since as early as 2007. During that time, bike-share supporters surveyed local residents about their interest in cycling, if they had access to a bike. About 75 percent reported some level of interest.

“We felt fairly confident that people would try this,” Pugliese said.

The city was able to secure $100,000 in funding from the local Lyndhurst Foundation to launch the effort in 2009. Partnering with the local transit system, CARTA, the city of Chattanooga won federal air-quality funds the following year to jump-start the system.

In light of the obstacles, Pugliese said the budding program has been a success.

It can be difficult to launch bike-share in a small city with a transportation system that is heavily reliant on car travel, Pugliese said. But Chattanooga’s experience can offer inspiration to other small cities.

In its first six months of operation, the system has provided 12,600 rides. Together, riders burned more than one million calories. All those bike trips have resulted in up to a 8,100-pound reduction in emissions. The system will add three more stations in residential neighborhoods in the spring.

“We’re pretty happy, all things considered,” he said.

To encourage ridership, the first hour of each trip is free. Another challenge is that Bike Chattanooga, as the system is informally known, hasn’t yet attracted a major sponsor. Securing enough capital to keep the system going through the lean start-up years is important, especially in smaller markets, where programs may find themselves on weaker financial footing than in larger cities, Pugliese said. He said the city considers the system an experimental pilot project.

Many other small cities are pursuing bike-share, conference speakers reported, including Bridgeport, Connecticut; Portland, Maine; and Fort Collins, Colorado. Panelists noted that Spartanburg, South Carolina (population 37,000), has a system with just two stations and 14 bikes.

11 thoughts on Chattanooga Bike-Share: Lessons for Smaller Cities

  1. Fantastic story. Chattanooga is a great town. I lived there for awhile working for the newspaper and it’s a terrific place to live. There’s a really strong outdoor culture there to begin with — everyone it seems is into hiking or climbing or mountain biking already — which is a great step toward turning that into biking around town. There’s a strong tech start-up culture there too, which may help boost things along.

  2. Too touchy-feely and not enough hard data. What was the total cost of the system? What was the projected break-even point? Are the rides taken as strong as originally thought? What metrics are being used for success? Everything has an opportunity cost, writing a blank check for transit that does not work as intended is not better than investing that money elsewhere.

  3. At least the photo shows actual bicycles. You would search forever, and then some, to find a similar scene in many Pennsylvania cities. Wilkes-Barre comes to mind.

  4. I’m from Chattanooga and live in DC. A few notes:

    This is written from an urban perspective. Chattanooga is mostly suburban/rural with a smaller downtown. The 16-county area that encompasses the Chattanooga MSA is only 1 million compared to the 8.55 million in DC Metro. The fact that Chattanooga built a bike-share given the Scenic City’s challenges, is amazing. 
    Secondly, public transportation in the South is vastly different from the Northeast. The bus system in Chattanooga is extremely limited to the immediate downtown area. When the entire geographic area is about 60 miles wide, is it possible to not depend on cars? Additionally, the terrain is not suited for using bikes as the main transportation system. Chattanooga is located at the base of the Smoky Mountains. “Hills” in Chatt. are considered mountains in much of the country. When a large majority of roads have dangerous S-curves, no sidewalks and no bike-lane, it’s just not going to work. 
    People are using bikes more frequently downtown. For example, my parents — who live 30 miles from downtown (20 min drive), drive about halfway to RiverPark and ride their bikes the rest of the way in. They prefer to get exercise and not have to deal with parking when going Downtown for dinner or a movie. Lastly, Chattanooga has always been an outdoor town. As whiteknuckled noted below, the area is ripe with rock climbling, hiking, whitewater rafting, canoeing and hang gliding. More information is below.

  5. The initial 30 station/300 bike system was funded through a $2,075,000 CMAQ grant.  Ridership has been within our expected range of results, but obviously continued use and adoption is important.  You are quite correct on the opportunity costs,but we will also factor in health impact assessments for the project as well s air quality benefits.

  6. Up to 2009, Chattanooga, a non-attainment air quality area for particulate matter, had only been able to apply to the State of Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) for their diesel retrofit focused CMAQ grants.  In 2010, as Director of Transportation Planning, I was informed by TDOT that they were redesigning the CMAQ program and all eligible projects would be considered.  Immediately, Phil Pugliese and I began preparing an application and Phil’s work with the Lyndhurst funded pilot gave him a much better perspective on what a full system might look like.  TDOT was interested in the program and asked us to provide more detail on the intended operations and maintenance aspects as well as the umbrella organization that would carry the grant.  Much gratitude goes to our transit authority, CARTA, for supporting early biking efforts with the installation of bike racks on all of our fixed-route service in 2003 and for trusting and supporting Phil by agreeing to administer this bike-share grant.  We’ve made great strides in our bicycle efforts since 1999 and much of it due to dedicated people who have been consistent in their work to make our city a bicycle-friendly one.  There’s more to come.

  7. ” drive about halfway to RiverPark and ride their bikes the rest of the way in.” They ride their own bikes because there are no Bike Share stations on the River Walk… Correct?

  8. ” In its first six months of operation, the system has provided 12,600 rides.” I call absolute BS on this. This is a scam.

  9. 12,600 rides in 6 months is about 70 rides per day. That means less than 1 in 4 of the 300 bikes are being used daily, which is probably even worse than Melbourne’s which has a mandatory helmet law (MHL) to handicap it so much that ranks almost bottom in BS schemes across the world.

    If Chattanooga doesn’t have a MHL then I’d guess without looking that the roads are subjectively unsafe to ride on. A cycling network that includes separated cycle paths on ALL arterial roads is a must to create a cycling “culture”. Dutch people and Chattanoogans have the same DNA, it’s just that the Netherlands has proper cycling infrastructure everywhere. IOW there’s no such thing as a cycling “culture”.

    At least you have the bikes in place, which is more than most cities have been able to do. But without a proper network the running costs of your scheme is going to doom it to failure, and if that happens then it may be decades before any government dares propose to have another go.

  10. @google-d29d64e9040c1e20797911a90f12c71a:disqus says:
    ” For example, my parents — who live 30 miles from downtown (20 min drive)…”

    Your parents must drive real fast.

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