NORMAL — For Normal City Council member Kathleen Lorenz, voting for the town's new bicycle-sharing program was no sure thing.

"Even though I might not use this and might think, 'What are we subsidizing bicycles for' ... it's just not in my lifestyle, but that doesn't make it wrong," she said. "I had to encourage myself to pull back and look at the larger picture."

Officials hope residents reluctant to share the road with more bike traffic will come to see what they do: a program that can make Bloomington-Normal not only more mobile but healthier, more productive and more welcoming.

That's possible through Zagster, a Cambridge, Mass., company that helps small cities operate short-term bike rental programs like those in major metropolitan areas. Last week, the council authorized City Manager Mark Peterson to finalize a contract with the company, and the program is expected to launch next spring.

Under a provisional agreement provided by the town, Zagster will get $84,600 per year over the next three years; a $3,287 set-up fee; and 7 percent of all rental proceeds, with the remainder going to the town. The company estimated Normal will recoup 20 percent of its expenses through user fees, Peterson said.

In exchange, Zagster will set up nine bike-share stations throughout the Twin Cities, set up software for bike checkout and maintain and rotate 45 bicycles. Riders will be able to buy one-day, monthly or annual passes that grant them one hour of riding for free, with an extra charge per additional hour.

Despite hosting Zagster stations, the city of Bloomington, Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University aren't lined up to pay for the program. Advocate BroMenn Medical Center, which will also have a station, has agreed to pay $10,000 per year and will advertise on the bikes and stations.

"We knew if we started complicating it with a lot of funders, particularly institutional funders... it would just delay the implementation," Peterson said. "There's the opportunity in the future (for other participants). If we look to expand, we would look to other partners to help fund that."

The stations will not offer helmet rentals, which council members said could pose a safety hazard.

Peterson said the program is low-risk for the town because it can be shuttered with 90 days notice.

"We're either going to demonstrate that this is very successful and popular, or it's not," he said.

Representatives of Advocate BroMenn, ISU and IWU — one of whom also represents local advocacy group Bike BloNo — said they expect the program to do well and are excited to help.

ISU operates the most similar local program to Zagster: Reggie Ride, which lets students, alumni, retired faculty and current faculty members who have signed up for the Student Fitness Center to check out bikes owned by ISU for free.

"I think it's an exciting addition that will complement our program," said Dawn Sanner, executive director of campus recreation.

Since starting in March 2014, Reggie Ride has expanded from 15 bikes to 30, and officials have "already seen our numbers double from 2015 to 2016 for the same period of time at the beginning of the semester" — from 152 rides during the first week of the 2015-16 school year to 304 rides during week one this fall, Sanner said.

Sanner hopes Zagster can build on that demand by offering a 24/7 service with long-term checkouts and several stations. Reggie Ride is open only during Student Fitness Center hours, limits checkouts to one day and is not expected to offer additional locations.

Students have indicated they use Reggie Ride not only to run off-campus errands and get to and from class, Sanner said, but also to explore Bloomington-Normal. She hopes Zagster will bring more Twin City residents and visitors to campus.

"We talked a lot about helmets and having them be available, but being able to provide an inventory that has every single size, that has a cleaning mechanism — we just did not feel at that point we were going to be able to support that," Sanner said. "We encourage people to wear helmets. We see riders bring their own."

Michael Gorman, who serves as chair of IWU's bicycle committee and treasurer for Bike BloNo, agreed. IWU looked into offering helmets for its bike-share program, which offers free rides on university bikes to students and staff, but decided against it.

“(Bike-share programs) have significantly lower crashes and injuries than personally-owned bikes,” he said. “You can buy a helmet and carry it with you if you know you’re going to use a bike-share bike that day.”

Unlike ISU, IWU has decided where to put its Zagster station — in the parking lot at Hansen Student Center. Gorman said IWU officials hope to eventually end their internal bike share and establish additional Zagster stations on campus.

Gorman said Bike BloNo also is excited about Zagster. He looks forward to using the program when his own bike isn't accessible.

“We think bike share is a great way for visitors to experience what Bloomington-Normal has to offer," he said. "It's a great opportunity for people who live here and don’t own a bike to try before they commit to buy."

For Advocate BroMenn, the program is a "marriage between providing individuals access to the community and simultaneously a healthier approach to access," said John Hesse, vice president of business development.

"We are researching options for helmet checkout," he added. "Whether it's maps, (showing the) safest routes, safety is absolutely is part of the conversation."

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Follow Derek Beigh on Twitter: @pg_beigh


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