In October 2017, a Zagster bike-share service was launched in Lancaster city under a two-year pilot program with the slogan “Bike It Lancaster.” The usage statistics for the first year of the program were disappointing, LNP’s Tim Stuhldreher reported Dec. 17. The service signed up 436 members, who took just 981 trips. Those figures are less than 30 percent of the average utilization in similarly sized Zagster programs elsewhere. “We’re not doing very well,” Karl Graybill, the city environmental planner who manages the local Zagster program, told Stuhldreher.
Great ideas don’t always catch on right away.
We’ll state this up front: We believe the Zagster bike-share service is a fine addition to Lancaster city and a potential draw and benefit for both residents and tourists. It’s the kind of enhancement and alternative transportation offering that a city in the midst of a continuing boom needs.
This should be a bicycle-friendly city. It’s certainly heading in the right direction in that regard. And part of being bicycle-friendly is offering bike rentals. Not everyone wants to own a bike, but there are plenty who want to use them.
Zagster’s statistics from its first year in Lancaster were discouraging, for sure. But let’s not give up on this.
The good news is that the primary infrastructure — including six sponsored docking stations for Zagster bikes — is already in place. The launch is typically the most challenging and cost-intensive step.
Moving forward, we think the costs for the city are reasonable. It sponsors one of the docking stations, paying $9,000 per year. Other sponsors — including LNP Media Group — cover the other five docking stations. These stations are located at Rotary Park; West King Street near Penn Square; near North Duke and Chestnut; College Square near Franklin & Marshall College; Roberto Clemente Park on South Duke Street; and the Amtrak station.
Zagster works like this: Users download the app from an app store or bike.zagster.com/lancasterpa, then register and provide credit card information. When a user wants to ride, he or she uses the app to find a bike station. The bikes are numbered, and users input the number on the app to unlock the bike. When riders are finished, they return the bike to one of the docking stations and lock it back up.
Once a user has registered on the app, he or she can ride on the hourly plan and pay $2.50 per hour for any use. Or, registered riders can get a $25 annual membership, under which the first two hours of any trip are free, and then riders pay $2.50 per hour for trips over two hours. The annual membership seems to us to be a great value if you plan to use the service often.
There’s an inherent problem in the pricing, though: As long as parking is priced at $2 per hour in the city parking garages, and Zagster charges $2.50 an hour to rent a bike, there’s no financial incentive to choose a bike over one’s car downtown.
The bicycles are packed away for the winter and will return in mid-March. In the meantime, there has already been some good discussion about how to boost participation in the spring:
— Lancaster has, as Stuhldreher writes, “a dense, compact streetscape — an ideal setting for point-to-point urban biking.” And Zagster has a new option for those kinds of environments. It’s a dockless bike-sharing system called “Pace,” which allows for the parking of bicycles at standard bike racks, in addition to the docking stations. It offers the kind of flexibility that can increase ridership in urban areas, and Zagster says Pace could come here in the spring. We hope it does. Flexibility, ease of use and availability would benefit Lancaster riders.
— Zagster and city officials might also increase the number of available bicycles, add new docking stations or move existing ones. Some of those ideas, though, could require additional financing.
— A tweak that could have benefits would be, as Stuhldreher writes, “allowing Lancaster’s Zagster memberships to be used with the Zagster programs in York, Harrisburg and Hershey, and vice versa.” We believe that’s the right way to go for an app-based service that’s trying to succeed across this region. York and Harrisburg participation rates have been very good, though those cities were already more bike-friendly than Lancaster (and had downtown rail trails or existing bike paths).
We like these ideas, though we’d also urge another look at the hourly pricing, to make it competitive with parking costs.
Making Zagster more convenient for more riders would have great benefits. This is an initiative that dovetails with the area’s transportation vision moving forward. As Stuhldreher wrote in June 2017, when the Zagster partnership was first announced: “Lancaster’s bike network fits into the county’s active transportation plan. ... Officials intend to build out the network further in coming years, making Lancaster a thoroughly bike-friendly city and facilitating connections with other county trails, bikeways and greenways.”
We love that vision. There are so many potential benefits for relieving traffic congestion, reducing fossil fuel usage, boosting tourism, integrating college students into the city and getting everyone healthier.
So we should all write a reminder to ourselves that, when the winter ends, we should make bicycling a bigger part of our routine in the spring.