by Kelsey Sandra Ables
This is our fifth in a series called Green Giants highlighting individuals who take concrete steps to help the earth, the climate and the people living on this planet.
Buffalo, NY, home of the chicken wing, has a reputation for fattening food, rowdy tailgates, and sedentary winters. Healthy is not the first word most would associate with the Queen City, but that could change.
A quick Google search will show that “Most Bike-Friendly Cities” is often synonymous with “Healthiest Cities.” With the help of the bike-share program Reddy Bikeshare, which launched in July, we might see Buffalo climb in both rankings. Parked up and down the streets of Buffalo, these bright red bikes serve as visual reminders that Buffalo is tuning into a national dialogue about healthy living.
“We’re making a difference in bike safety, the infrastructure of the city, and in people’s lives,” says director of operations Anders Gunnersen. Instead of burning planet-damaging fossil fuels, Reddy Bikeshare riders are burning calories. Equipped with GPS technology, these bikes measure distance traveled, calories burned, money saved by biking instead of driving and even CO2 emissions reduced. A few clicks on his laptop and Gunnersen can see the stats, “We’ve already burned 567,891 calories; that’s a lot of chicken wings,” he jokes.
Anders graduated from UB with a degree in environmental science. He says his complementary interests in biking and the environment developed “in tandem.” Biking was an easy and enjoyable way to get to school, and at school he learned about the environmental issues that biking could help alleviate. To Anders, who has biked across the nation twice, the potential for biking is endless. “They were great adventures,” he says of his trips, “I’d like to do more [long distance biking trips], but I feel a little bit buried in life sometimes, it’s hard to fit two months of riding into your routine.”
Anders’ long biking trips increased his passion for biking and also helped him see the potential for bikes as a regular method of local transportation.
Anders was hired to operate a bike share system as a program of the non-profit organization, Shared Mobility Inc. (SMI). Buffalo BikeShare was a 4 year beta-test, operated mostly at the University at Buffalo but also within the city.
“I wanted to start to see how Buffalo would engage with the bike-share system, but with the bike culture growing and technology advancing, it seemed like the city was ready for a system of its own,” Anders says. “Since the beta program was so successful, Independent Health was eager to get on board to partner with SMI to launch a large-scale system.” As a result, what started a few years ago as a small pilot program of 25 shared bikes has transformed into a fleet of 200 shared Reddy bikes, a partnership with Independent Health and nearly 30 bike stations stretching from Buffalo RiverWorks to Hertel Ave (Independent Health members get a 20% discount from the annual pass).
Buffalo BikeShare was the first to make use of GPS-technology, which has now caught on in cities like Phoenix, Tampa and Portland to name a few. The bikes are manufactured by a NYC-based company, Social Bicycles, and are equipped with “smart technology” which means, unlike New York’s Citi Bike, which utilizes physical hubs built into the cityscape, these bikes can be dropped off at virtual hub within a geo-fence. “I can park it almost anywhere,” says Anders, “it’s a lot easier for us to build a system that way. I can draw a geo-fence around say, Larkinville and then you can park there.” Anders and his team plan on adjusting the virtual hubs in accordance with traffic data they are collecting. “The nice thing about these bikes is we can change how we operate in a day… There’s flexibility with the mechanical end of things and the virtual end of things,” says Anders, “we’re in the waiting phase now, observing how people are using the bikes. It’s really fun just watching all the data.”
“The fee for parking anywhere out of a ‘free parking zone,’ which can be seen on our live map at reddybikeshare.com, is $2.00,” said Anders. “There is also a ‘bounty bike’ program. You can return bikes which are out of free parking zones to a free parking zone for $1.00 riding credit. We chose to make the program as flexible as possible and not force people to return bikes back to our custom Reddy racks if they don’t want to.”
Buffalo, with its relatively flat terrain and small size, might be the ideal city for biking if it weren’t for our brutal winters. “We don’t have that traffic density that other cities might have,” notes Gunnersen, “and everything is within range that you can get to by bike. If we could only do something about the snow we get… I guess we’ll have to figure out a cross-country ski sharing thing at some point,” Anders jokes.
For now, it looks like Anders will have enough work to do at Reddy Bikeshare. Maybe it’s the vibrant red that’s drawing people to them or simply the joy of exploring the city by bike… either way, these bikes are catching on fast. “I can’t go anywhere without seeing people on them,” he says, “we see so many people get on a bike because their friend is getting on a bike. Sometimes you just have someone to help you make that decision ‘let’s take a bike today,’ and next thing you know you have five people riding bikes down the street.” Looks like biking is contagious.
An Allentown local, Anders has watched people use Reddy bikes for the first time. “I love seeing people walk up and go through the whole process. They look at the bike, they look at our signage, and they take out their phone, download the app, and then they get on a bike and go. I’m waiting to see if they need help, and if they do, I’ll come save them, but they’re doing it without any help, and it’s great. It’s rewarding to see people engage with your system exactly how you want them to.”
“When you have an army of people on bikes, you can make changes in the city,” says Anders, “Now, we have bike lanes that never existed before. We have bike racks everywhere! You go to another city similar to Buffalo, and you are not going see bike racks up and down all major streets.” While we’ve steadily been growing the city’s biking infrastructure, the public’s attitude towards cyclists is changing, too. Anders notes, “The culture of biking in the city has changed dramatically in the past 10 years… I get yelled at a lot less for being in the road, almost not at all– it’s so refreshing!”
The surging bicycle culture in Buffalo and WNY has gained a lot from Independent Health’s support of the biking community. As a company that acknowledges the large value of biking as a way for individuals to stay healthy and active, they also recognize that bike sharing is a fun and easy mode of transportation that promotes recreation, sustainability, and our local economy. And with over 1,200 riders that have signed up in just the past 10 weeks, the community is embracing it, too.
Cyclists might owe the “youth that’s embraced the bicycle,” as Anders puts it, for their acceptance on the streets. But the popularization of bicycling is also a part of growing health consciousness around Buffalo and the country. Reddy Bikeshare is contributing to the same goal as the kayaks on the lake and ice skating rink at Canalside. People are appreciating Buffalo in a new way and bettering themselves at the same time. “You see people out on the water in boats and kayaks, you see people biking everywhere. [Buffalo is] changing. It’s definitely feeling different than it did 10 yrs ago. I think people are more active,” says Gunnersen.
Experiencing a city by bike is “very personal” Gunnersen says. When you don’t have a glass window and 2,000 pounds of steel between you and the world, the details in the architecture, the curve of the street, the small city garden that you would’ve cruised by, all become significant. “There are neighborhoods that have a lot of culture and history that sometimes people overlook… I think initiatives like Slow Roll Buffalo are doing a great job of opening the city up to people on bikes who otherwise wouldn’t even think to go to these parts of town [like Cazenovia Park, Riverside Park or the Botanical Gardens] because they might not even be on their radar.” Anders also includes another change agent, the SkyRide and all the work Justin Booth and GObike have done to effect policy and advocate for bicycling in the city, by running workshops, classes and events.
“A huge reason why bike sharing in Buffalo was made possible is due to the work that Justin and GObike Buffalo have done over the last ten years to make the city more bike-friendly,” said Anders, “and it’s only going to get better with the ongoing implementation of Buffalo’s Bicycle Master Plan.”
With abandoned industrial sites turned into art spaces and a waterfront brought back to life, Buffalo has earned the esteemed title “up and coming.” The harsh reality, however, is that city “revivals” often displace people as a result of gentrification. Socially conscientious Gunnersen notes, “We want to make sure that the so-called “revival” of Buffalo isn’t leaving people out. We’re excited that Buffalo is becoming more bike friendly, and we want to make sure to include everyone. For example, not everyone has a smartphone, so the system does not require a smartphone to use.”
One of Reddy Bike’s biggest goals is to eradicate the need for a credit card. “We want this to be an affordable system and create access to bikes for people who otherwise don’t have it. I think because of the nature of our city it is very important that we figure it out. With the density of their population, NYC and other large cities might not necessarily need to include everyone in the bike sharing system. But we’re Buffalo. We’re all in the same boat. We want to include everyone.”
“You don’t need the app,” said Anders, “the app just makes it easier to find bikes. You can sign up online or call us and we can sign folks up. Then you just walk up to any bike and rent it by entering your account info into the bike’s computer. Once you’re signed up, no smartphone is needed.
The goals of Reddy Bikes go beyond leisure—Gunnersen hopes to integrate biking into the very fabric of our city’s transportation “We want to see more people using the [Reddy] bikes to commute… we want to make sure that we are a part of the transit system. The idea is a bike can get you through the last mile of a trip if it’s done properly. So if you take a bus from point A to point B, you still have to get to your home or to your office. A bus doesn’t go right from door to door, so maybe a bike can be the last leg of that trip. People who live too far to bike to work can also make use of the system,” says Gunnersen. “Riding a bike to work might not be feasible for a lot of people, but Reddy Bikes gives people access to bikes during the middle of the day. If you want to go to lunch or a meeting, you have a bike right outside your door. Instead of having to put your bike in your car, we’re giving you a bike to borrow.
“We have stations as far south as Buffalo Riverworks and north to Hertel Avenue and into North Buffalo’s University Heights. We also have bikes at the Broadway Market, Buffalo Museum of Science and Larkin Square. We are working with community leaders and local businesses to broaden our reach and watching projects like the Niagara Street Gateway closely to see how we can fit in once it’s complete.”
To people who are nervous about biking in the city Anders says, “look at all the maps that are available that show safe biking lanes and stick to those. Most importantly, follow the rules of the road. By riding you gain confidence and you start to understand how you interact with traffic.”
Want to exercise and save money? The average monthly parking rate in downtown Buffalo ranges from $90 to $225. If you lived north in say, Amherst or Tonawanda, and you worked downtown and bought a yearly Reddy bike pass for $55 plus 1¢ minute (absolutely their best deal), you could drive to Hertel Ave. and park on a side street with no meter and pick up a Reddy bike. It’s roughly four miles to downtown, about a 15-minute bike ride. Your cost per month, including the Reddy pass fee and minutes used, would be $10.30, plus you get 30 minutes of daily exercise (A daily pass is $8.50. A monthly group pass for up to four bikes is $20 per month plus 6¢ a minute).
To me, gyms have always represented how far we have strayed from nature. People running on treadmills like hamsters, cycling to nowhere, lifting weights manufactured for lifting. Our sedentary lifestyles are epidemic and we have divorced our bodies from our work—the working world is one sphere and the sphere of physical fitness has been sectioned off to gyms and yoga studios. But Reddy bikes might be our opportunity to reunite the two. If by biking, we are trading fossil fuels for our own energy and turning what would be a car ride into an opportunity for exercise, Reddy bikes might be a step in the right direction both environmentally and physically.
For further info go to reddybikeshare.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org