By Robert Rivard

Caleb Choate’s workday begins at 7:30 a.m. in a small building called “The Hub” at the corner ofSouth Alamo Street and Cesar Chavez Boulevard, at the southwest cover of HemisFair Park. It’s ground zero for the city’s growing B-cycle program.

A computer screen sorts data streamed in by wireless 3G signal from the 25 bike share stations located as far north as the San Antonio Museum of Art and south to Roosevelt Park on Mission Road.

Caleb Choate shows us his tattoo at the B-cycle office. Photo by Iris Dimmick
Caleb Choate shows us his tattoo at the B-cycle office. Photo by Iris Dimmick

A perfect tattoo of a bike twitches on Choate’s inner forearm as he mouses over the numbers on the screen.”It’s amazing that we have one of the best programs in the country. I don’t think people who live here quite understand that, but visitors sure do,” said Cindi Snell, co-owner of Bike World and executive director of B-cycle.

It’s early in the day, but Choate is busy. The station at the San Antonio Museum of Art “failed to wake up” at 4 a.m. when the Verizon wireless service was activated for the day so bike rentals could start at 5 a.m. A staff member is dispatched to the site, on his bike, to reboot the station system.

aul Young, San Antonio B-cycle's most loyal customer. Photo courtesy of Katherine Gainey/San Antonio B-cycle.
aul Young, San Antonio B-cycle’s most loyal customer. Photo courtesy of Katherine Gainey/San Antonio B-cycle.

Bikes need to be moved around the city. Some stations have too many bikes, and others have too few, the results of the previous day’s ridership; random patterns of rentals and drop-offs by locals and visitors alike.

About the only certainty in the B-cycle day is that retiree Paul Young and his small dog will drop by for their daily rental and urban meander, with Young at the pedals and the photogenic pooch perched in the front basket, taking in the day’s scenery. No other bike rider has amassed more hours or miles on a B-cycle bike since the program launched here in March 2011 than Young. Choate’s dashboard tracks member usage, and Young recently surpassed the 2,000 mile mark. That might not be a big number for a committed cyclist on a road bike, but for an urban commuter aboard a heavy machine built more for comfort than speed or distance, it’s a remarkable number.

The small shop starts to fill with co-workers, affectionately called “Worker B’s,” most of whom arrive at work aboard personal bikes. Choate assigns each one to ferry bikes from one station to another. By mid-morning every station will offer the right mix of bikes and empty slots based on usage patterns. The numbers on Choate’s screen will realign to his satisfaction. Customers who show up needing a bike will find one, while those dropping off a bike will find an available empty slot. Balance.

Gem Abrahamson and Zach Gonzales assemble a new B-cycle. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The small workspace is crowded with large cardboard boxes containing new, unassembled bikes shipped from the Trek factory in Madison, WI and awaiting the mechanics’ attention in the afternoon. The San Antonio program now includes 230 bikes and continues to expand.

Each time a new station with more bikes is added to the urban grid, bike rentals become more convenient to access for local commuters and visitors alike. Already , nearly five per cent of downtown residents have purchased an annual $60 membership that enables them to use the bikes daily at no additional cost for short-term commutes.

Outside The Hub, Nathan Cullinan, a young, lean B-cycle bike mechanic, arrives on his own vintage road bike, deftly balancing a much heavier B-cycle bike with one outstretched arm as if the rental were a well-behaved dog on a leash. Cullinan calls it a “ghost bike,” a machine moving down the road without a rider aboard. It’s obviously a lot more efficient for Cullinan and his fellow workers to travel by bike rather than foot when ferrying bikes, but there’s an art to it, especially crossing intersections and navigating vehicle traffic. Cullinan does it effortlessly. Don’t try it at home.

Iris Dimmick, with camera, and me with notebook, are on foot, following a young mechanic named Zach Gonzales and his

“Ghost biking” with Zach Gonzales and Gem Abrahamson in Hemisfair Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick

colleague Gem Abrahamson. I’ve known Zach since he was a hotshot teenager riding with his father and uncle on the Third Street Grackles cycling team I captained. I remember a time when I was both taller and faster than Zach, but those days are long gone. We set out for the Central Library to the overloaded station there to retrieve a few bikes and move them to the nearly empty HemisFair Park station. It’s a lark until the sun clears the downtown high rises and temperatures soar. By 11 a.m. it starts to feel like real work. My water bottle is empty, my shirt is soaked, and I’m thinking I have more than enough in my notebook to make a story. Anyway, I tell myself, Cindi Snell, the energetic director of the non-profit San Antonio Bike Sharing program, is waiting at The Hub to talk with me.

“I’m so excited about the bike share program and how well it is doing here, and now what is happening to bring bike sharing to new neighborhoods,” Snell said. “It’s amazing that we have one of the best programs in the country. I don’t think people who live here quite understand that, but visitors sure do.”

San Antonio B-cycle, already one of the nation’s leading bike share programs, is gaining momentum faster than even its most ardent supporters ever imagined. On Thursday, City Council approved two key program expansions that should satisfy critics who fear that bike share programs are elitist and out of reach of working class residents who lack the necessary credit or debit card to access the system.

The local B-cycle team. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

One new initiative brings B-cycle into the barrio in a partnership with the San Antonio Housing Authority. Annual memberships that normally cost $60 will now be offered for $20 to qualified SAHA riders. Interested residents will still need a credit or debit card, but they’ll gain low-cost transportation and an easy way to become more active and fit.

B-cycle employees Benny Medrano (center) and Danny Trevino (right) ride through Hemisfair Park with co-owner Cindi Snell (left). Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“The change I am particularly excited about is the pilot program making B-cycle memberships accessible to low-income neighborhoods,” said Julia Diana, the City of San Antonio’s manager of bike programs. “We want B-cycle to be part of all levels of our society, but there is an undercurrent of concern that bike sharing is an an amenity that only certain segments of the population utilize. A lot of it is because the un-banked person can’t access the bikes without a credit card. You’ll still have a credit or debit card, but we are partnering with SAHA and B-cycle to make greatly reduced memberships available.”

Then, on Nov. 16, B-cycle will celebrate the Phase One launch of its Mission Reach program when the ribbon is cut at Mission San Jose on six new stations extending the bike share footprint well beyond the center city. Cyclists are invited that day to ride down to Mission San Jose as Father David Garcia, who is overseeing the $17 million restoration  of the Missions, conducts a Blessing of the Bikes to mark the occasion.

Taken together, the two new initiatives make available to inner city residents a new and affordable  option for exercising and pursuing a more active and healthy lifestyle, which public health officials say is essential to combatting the city’s epidemic levels of adult and childhood obesity and Type II diabetes, especially prevalent among working class Hispanics.

South Alamo B cycle station
Zach Gonzales and Gem Abrahamson unlock bikes at the S. Alamo B-cycle station in front of Hemisfair Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Funding for the expansion comes from a $15 million federal grant the city received to combat obesity and promote wellness and physical activity. The same grant to Metro Health has funded the bike share program, Síclovía events, salad bars at middle school cafeterias, Por Vida! low-fat, nutritional entrees on area restaurant menus and other wellness initiatives. The City also will apply for an extensions of the grant that will allow the B-cycle program to expand south to Mission Espada at a cost of about $300,000.

Snell, meanwhile has her team shifting from a year one focus on operations to marketing the amenity, raising public awareness among locals of the program and its affordability, and recruiting wellness-minded business to support the program by purchasing advertising rights at an individual bike share station, where the bikes and station will be branded with sponsor logos.

“It’s an attractive deal downtown where there are very few options to promote your brand,” Snell said.

Diana just received word that the City’s bike share program will be singled out next month in Fort Worth when the 2012 Project Planning Award at the Texas American Planning Association conference in Fort Worth is given to B-cycle. Diana said newly gathered data shows 3-5% of all downtown residents say they are using the B-cycle program, well above the anticipated 1%. With more bikes and more stations on the drawing boards in the coming months, Snell and Diana both believe ridership will continue to grow fast, especially as locals realize they can check out a bike for a quick commute to work and if they are members, pay no charge for the ride.

Many local cyclists regard B-cycle as tourist amenity and of no use to someone with their own bike.

“It’s the first thing I had from locals,” said B-cycle’s Benny Medrano. “They all say, ‘I have my own bike.’ But what they don’t think about is a B-cycle membership lets you pick up a bike near your house or apartment, commute to work, drop it off at a nearby station, and you don’t have to worry about locking up your bike and leaving it outside all day where it can get stolen.”

The B-cycle team is now fanning out downtown and forming partnerships with shops and small businesses that attract cyclists. A new Houston Street coffee shop, Cafe Punto del Cielo, for example, will soon display the B-cycle logo on its glass window front, signaling to customers that anyone who arrives on a bike will get a 10% discount on their purchases.

Daniel Treviño, who moved here from Monterrey, Mexico to get married, is working on the marketing plan. With his signature black t-shirt and the round B-cycle logo he doesn’t need a business card to introduce himself.

“This is a great program,” Treviño said. “We hope you start seeing B-cycle decals all over downtown soon.”

Zac Gonzales and the “ghost bike” in Hemisfair Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick

Download the B-cycle map here.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.