Launching and operating a bike share program with limited resources provides its own unique set of challenges. But, as I learned from Claire Hurley, Manager of Madison B-cycle, there are few problems that can’t be solved with a positive attitude and a bike.
Claire, a longtime bike commuter who’s professional background is focused in customer service (she’ll be the first to tell you that she doesn’t have a ”scholarly urban planning background”), is the charming face of Madison B-cycle. She prides herself in her staff’s ability to handle a variety of duties, learn and grow with the program, and provide the best bike share service possible to the Madison community.
Matt Christensen: What does a day-in-the-life of Madison B-cycle’s manager entail?
Claire Hurley: Part of the reason I love my job is because it’s always different. Right now, because we just opened, I’m primarily focused on marketing; making sure we’re all the same page, planning events, and being certain that we have all the materials and staff that we need to be successful at those events. During the summer season, it’ll be a lot of event support. And, because Madison B-cycle is part of a public-private partnership with the city, I’m also constantly in contact with city officials and planners.
MC: What interests you most about bike share?
CH: Watching the growth of the cycling community facilitated at least partly by Madison B-cycle has been awesome. We’ve had people email us and say that they hadn’t ridden a bike in fifteen years and they saw our bikes and gave it try. And now they’re hooked! The service we’re providing–having bikes available to the entire Madison community–is creating a more vibrant community and we really couldn’t ask for much more.
MC: Your team is relatively small. What do you find to be the most important quality in a staff member?
CH: Versatility. Especially with the techs, on a day-to-day basis, they’re out in the field interacting with customers, so it’s really important for us to find that high-quality tech who is not only able to do bike maintenance but also one who can be a smiling face for Madison B-cycle and a great representative of the brand.
MC: In addition to making sure your techs reflect positively on your brand, how else do you address the issue of providing a service that is almost entirely automated?
CH: The more that we can interact and engage with the customer, the better. To do this, we tend to do a lot of events during the summer. There is significant value in the manager of the program being present right along side interns and techs to show our dedication to the program. I think that comes from my customer service background. I find it really important to introduce myself and get engaged with the community on that level.
MC: Aside from engaging the public, what are your goals for Madison B-cycle?
CH: We feel the best user experience is provided through our annual membership, so our goal is to get as many people annual memberships as possible. We jumped from 470 members to over 2,000 between 2011 to 2012–over a 300% increase in membership and, while we expect growth to plateau slightly this year, we’re hoping to continue to expand our membership base.
MC: Wow, that’s impressive! What do you attribute most to your growth?
One of the biggest factors was creating an expanded partnership with the University of Wisconsin. Knowing that UW Transportation Services is committed to not adding more car parking on campus we thought, “How can we get more engaged with the campus community and bring more people on board?” So, we began to offer students, faculty and staff a highly reduced annual membership. And from 2011 to 2012 we saw our membership through the school increase from 100 to over 800.
MC: In addition to support from the University of Wisconsin, support from the City of Madison seems integral to your success. What has it done to help grow your program?
CH: There’s absolutely no way we could have done this with the City of Madison’s support. Among other things, the city has helped create an expedited permitting process that allows us to quickly make modifications to our system, whether it be adding new stations or moving existing ones.
MC: Public opinions about bike share can vary. What kind of feedback are you getting from the non-bicycling communities about your program?
CH: The feedback we’ve been getting is very positive. We’ve had business owners who recognize the economic value of our stations ask us to add them close to their businesses. Rather than complain about having a bike sharing station in their area, it’s been, “How can I get one of those near me?”
MC: That’s very good to hear! Trek’s headquarters is basically down the street from you guys. How does your close proximity affect your operations?
CH: It’s hugely beneficial to us. We’re basically in John Burke’s back yard, the founder of Trek, and he loves bike sharing. He’s a constant user of the program and he’s also our biggest critic, I would say. He wants stations to look good and he wants bikes to work well. That has made us very conscientious of how are system functions on a day-to-day basis and provides an additional incentive to have the program in prime condition.
MC: People tend to use bike share in vastly different ways. How are Madisonians using your system?
CH: We have had a lot of people adding our system to their arsenal of transportation modes. They’ll have a bus pass, their own bike, and a car–but they’ll make room for bike share. We get people leaving their car in one spot and taking a B-cycle bike from their car to their office, their office to lunch, or their office to a meeting. It’s fantastic to see the freedom that bike share has provided our community by adding another transportation option.
MC: B-cycle recently announced that its memberships are good in 15 cities nationwide with its B-connected program. What do you think about the idea?
CH: It’s a substantial benefit to our members and I think we’ll see a fair amount of people upgrading their memberships from short-term to annual because of the added amenity. I’m not sure that our members are travelling to places like Nashville and Denver very often, but, if we see more cities launch B-cycle programs in the Madison region, it will undoubtedly help grow our membership base.
MC: What has Madison done to get lower-income individuals and minorities on bike share bikes?
CH: We have worked with some of our great community organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club and the Urban League to get people engaged. As we work more with these community organizations, we’ll hopefully be able to bring cycling to a more diverse crowd and engage some of Madison’s minority populations.
One of our favorite events of the year is called “Artbikes” in which we partner with the Boys and Girls Club and DreamBikes. Kids have the opportunity to use their imaginations to paint old B-cycle bikes in what ever fashion they choose. This summer, we look forward to making that event even bigger.
MC: What advice to you have for other small-scale programs launching this year like Salt Lake City and Fort Worth?
CH: Be flexible. Don’t be afraid to adjust your system based on performance. And hire staff that are capable of wearing many hats.
It’s also critical to engage local stakeholders early on in operations–if not before that–including bike advocacy organizations, community leaders, local businesses, and institutions.
BikeShare.com would like to thank Claire Hurley for taking the time to speak with us. Check back next Thursday to see what the Nuts & Spokes series has to offer!