Flickr/Luis Tamayo

As developers look to latch on to the popularity of bike sharing, winners and losers emerge

Construction won’t begin until next year on the expanse of parking lots that will become Boston’s long-awaited Seaport Square neighborhood, but developers have already installed the first Hubway bike sharing station on the sprawling 6.5 million square-foot parcel.

Once the new residences, shops, restaurants, office space, and hotels go up, “We plan on having several stations out there. We think it will be that much in demand,” says Kevin R. Benedix, executive vice president of Seaport Square developer Boston Global Investors.

"You are always looking for amenities that bring that lifestyle to the project. Maybe back in the day it was a (swimming) pool,” that attracted tenants to a particular residential complex. Today, he says, bike share stations and car-sharing services are more popular with perspective tenants. “We love it because it gives us an anchor in the community and connects our property to the rest of the city.”

Universities, hospitals, corporate campuses, and business improvement districts were among the first to sponsor stations in cities such as Boston, Denver, and San Antonio. But for real estate developers and property managers, the stakes are twice as high.

Beside the marketing boon, adding the sharing station to development plans in densely populated cities can help developers address the traffic and parking concerns that typically accompany construction plans. In at least one jurisdiction, Arlington County, Va., part of the 15-month-old Capital Bikeshare program, officials have already added station sponsorship to the zoning process. Developers can now negotiate with county officials to include full or partial station funding as part of a transit-related improvements package.

“We felt it was important to spend on alternative transportation, too,” says Kelly Shooshan, chief operating officer of the Shooshan Company, the first Arlington developer to take advantage of the new policy. It picked up part of the tab on a new bike share station planned for the county’s Ballston area. The money came out of mitigation funds the company would have spent anyway as part of the permitting process on a 20-story Ballston office tower called Founders Square.

Paul DeMaio, Capital Bikeshare Program Manager for Arlington County, says discussions with developers are becoming “more and more commonplace as developers wake up to the possibilities.”

Other high profile addresses with bike share sponsorship deals include the redevelopment of the historic Union Station neighborhood in Denver and Boston’s venerable Prudential Center. Union Station is still in the planning stage, while the Prudential high-rise mix of living quarters, offices and a shopping mall has been a landmark in Boston’s Back Bay since it was built in 1965.

“It’s natural that developers would look to capitalize on biking’s popularity,” says Jack Robbins, a senior urban designer with the architectural firm Perkins + Will in New York City, where officials recently picked Portland, Ore.-based Alta Bicycle Share, Inc., to launch a 10,000 bike system next summer. Officials there have also called for corporate sponsors.

While sponsorship fees vary from city to city, a single station costs about $50,000 to equip and install plus tens of thousands of dollars in annual maintenance costs. With many bike share programs reporting ridership and membership numbers growing faster than originally estimated, Alta's Mia Birk, and her company's chief competitor, Waterloo, Wis.-based B-cycle, are seeing more requests from private sector companies, as well.

“A year and a half ago, it was very difficult to explain what bike share does. Now we are fielding more and more questions about the possibilities,” says Lee Jones, director of sales and marketing at B-cycle, which operates programs in Denver, San Antonio, Madison, Wis., and Kailua, Hawaii, among other places.

Shooshan says she was initially interested in having the station on the Founders’ parcel but settled for helping to pay for one elsewhere in Ballston after Bikeshare officials concluded the property wasn’t the best spot for a station. The builders of a planned apartment complex in D.C.’s Takoma neighborhood also say their offer to sponsor a station was rejected by officials who felt the location was too far off the beaten path.

“In good faith, we don’t want them to sponsor a station that won’t get used,” Nicole Freedman, director of Bicycle Programs for the city of Boston, who also had a turn away a few businesses.

Robbins says the bike sharing programs fit well with “active design” principals aimed at encouraging more mass transit usage, healthier lifestyles and smaller ecological footprints. Those synergies could prompt more municipalities to follow Arlington County’s lead and look into folding bike share infrastructure into the site planning process. 

If “green building” certification programs such as LEED eventually recognize bike sharing stations, in addition to giving points for things like bike racks, it could further inspire developers to consider the bike sharing infrastructure in more urban redevelopment projects and give developers more reason to partner, though some see enough benefit even without such recognition.

Boston Global, for instance, plans to build the Seaport Square development to the LEED-Gold standard. Though hosting the bikes and docks won't earn it any LEED points, Benedix said it's still "one of those boxes that you check" when building a new urban neighborhood.

“It’s not just a trend, it’s the way of the future,” says Benedix of bike sharing and other alternative transit options in cities like Boston, which has seen its population rebound in recent decades. “People are returning to cities. Young people are raising their families here. You need other solutions. Everybody can’t have three cars.”

Still, bike share systems are expanding at a challenging moment. At the same time bike sharing has taken off, government funding once available for alternative transit projects has become scarcer, says Jones from B-cycle. He thinks less public funding is what’s fueling municipalities from Manhattan to Salt Lake City to explore sponsorships and naming rights deals.

In Boston, for instance, $3 million of the Hubway’s three-year budget comes from state and federal grants with the rest flowing from a variety of private sources. The biggest private sponsor is the Boston-based athletic shoemaker New Balance, which kicked in $600,000 for naming rights to what is officially the New Balance Hubway. Another 18 corporate sponsors pay $50,000 per station. The sponsorships come with the right to advertise their logos on the Hubway’s website, 10 bikes, and one station kiosk. The program will make the rest of the budget up on user fees and advertising revenue. If the program ends up turning a profit, the city of Boston will take 75 percent with the remaining 25 percent going to Alta, which operates the system for the city, according to Freedman.

But not everyone agrees the public-private partnerships are a good idea. Shirley Kressel, a Boston landscape architect who often comments on the city’s development decisions, says she’s glad the city has a bike sharing network, but objects to its “stealth corporatization.”

“The public shouldn’t be given the notion that we are dependent on corporations for our public services,” says Kressel, who rankles at corporate tax breaks like the 20-year, $16 million dollar tax exemption the city and state officials awarded Liberty Mutual, one of the country’s largest insurance companies, last year to build a new Boston office tower.

“Why are we giving fabulously wealthy corporations money (in tax breaks) and then when we want a relatively modest public service we have to go begging?” she asks. “In the end, whoever pays the piper calls the tune, and everybody knows that.”

Photo credit: Flickr user Chasqui (Luis Tamayo)

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