Providence Bike-Share Program Searching for Sponsors

The user interface on a Social Bicycle. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

The user interface on a Social Bicycle. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

By JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Whether the city sees a bike-share program next summer hinges on the success of a New York City marketing agency in securing a naming-rights sponsor and five founding sponsors within the next 60 to 90 days.

So far, the agency, Ascendent Sports Group (ASG), has signed on one of five founding sponsors to provide financial backing for a citywide bike-share program — Brown University.

"We feel confident that a number of (sponsorship) slots will get filled by the end of the year," said Brett Ehrlich, vice president of corporate partnerships at ASG.

Providence first began exploring a bike-share program in 2013 with Alta Bicycle Share, then a Portland, Ore., company that managed bike-share programs across the United States. However, the initiative stalled when Alta failed to find a corporate sponsor to finance bike sharing in Providence.

Since then, Alta was acquired by investors and rebranded, under new management, as Motivate. ASG was recently contracted by Motivate to find sponsors for the Providence bike-share program, which, if it comes to fruition, would be managed by Motivate. Motivate operates bike-share programs in 11 metropolitan areas, including New York's Citi Bike.

Justin Ginsburgh, Motivate's vice president of development, called bike sharing "a 21st-century version of public transit."

He and Ehrlich spoke last week at a public lunch-and-learn hosted by the Providence Foundation.

As a visual aid, the presenters brought along a Social Bicycle (SoBi), a brand of smart bike that would comprise the Providence fleet. Social Bicycles are solid, chainless bikes equipped with a GPS-enabled lock that works with existing bike racks. Unlike first-generation bike-share programs, with SoBi no large-scale docking system is needed, making the system more flexible and affordable.

SoBi operates on a digital platform. Members can find and reserve a bike using their smartphone or web browser. An app tells riders where the closest bike is, and then, once the bike is reserved, members simply unlock the bike with their account number and a four-digit PIN. When a ride is complete, the rider can bring the bicycle back to a bike station, or lock it anywhere in the city.

The digital platform allows users to track their rides, share mapped rides and statistics, including miles traveled, calories burned and money saved versus driving.

Once a lead sponsor and partner sponsors are secured, Motivate plans to roll out 45 stations and 450 bikes throughout the city. There will be no financial commitment needed from the city or taxpayers to operate the program.

"This is something we really want to see happen in Providence," said Leah Bamberger, the city's director of sustainability.

Banberger, who worked as program manager for Greenovate Boston before coming to Providence, recalled when Boston rolled out its bike-share program in 2011.

"Boston went through a rapid bike culture transformation, but bike share came before all that happened," Bamberger said. "I think it can have the same impact here in Providence. It's not going to make things happen magically, but it will help establish the bike culture."