A new mobile app seeks to reach newbie cyclists in a "national campaign creating local solutions to address obesity, heart disease and air quality issues," and is the latest sign that technology is working to make the bicycle a more integral part of the Charleston community.

My City Bikes, headquartered in California's Silicon Valley, works with local bicycle shops who "sponsor" the app and provide advice for content.

It has created free apps, which cost between $7,000 and $12,000 to build, for 14 cities so far. To help pay for it, local co-sponsors contribute $400 to $2,500 toward their city's app with the remaining costs being covered by individual sponsors and volunteer programmers.

"The idea for My City Bikes was developed in 2012 by a group of programmers who shared a love of biking and noticed that it was hard to access mountain, road and commuter route information in one place," says Sara Villalobos, the group's community outreach director.

Villalobos says the lead programmer is Mike Davis, who coordinates with a group of developers in Florida, New York and Seattle. The first apps were launched in May as part of National Bike Month.

"Charleston was selected as a My City Bikes destination because of the high need and great potential for change. We are here to show beginners the safe options that do exist in the community today, and lend a helping hand to the local organizations and advocates who are working diligently to increase safety and accessibility for cyclists."

Mixed reviews

The local app, called simply "Charleston Bikes," has a few common local rides, links to videos for bike repairs and a petition to make Charleston more bike-friendly.

Local cycling advocates gave the app mixed reviews, with the main complaints being that it was too basic and was advertising for the two sponsoring shops, the Trek Bicycle Store in Mount Pleasant and Charleston Bicycle Company.

One long-time advocate called it "worthless fluff ... with no useful information" and a "basically a promo" for the bike shops, noting that there was no mention of the nonprofit groups, Coastal Cyclists and Charleston Moves.

Another critic says the app is "not robust enough" and offers some of the same information listed on the websites of Coastal Cyclists, Trek and Charleston Bicycle Company.

Others weren't so harsh.

Bike commuter, interactive marketing specialist and Charleston Moves board member Jordan Freeman says that despite the omission of community partners, "it's certainly not causing any harm to have it out there ..." and that the app may be a work in progress.

"I do appreciate the bike maintenance videos they put in one place, and it's at least resourceful for anyone wanting to learn more about area pathways. If it's indeed meant to be for an app for new riders in town or for beginners, then this is a reasonable resource that should pique their interest to go online and learn more.

"So, while it's not an end-all, be-all app for riders, it's a start and will give future apps a solid benchmark."

Offering expertise

Retail outfitters, whether they are bicycle shops, running specialty stores or cater to all things adventure, often double as local experts, often offering free advice. Providing that advice via an app is the modern version of chatting in the shop.

Ben Gruber, owner of Trek in Mount Pleasant, also serves on Charleston Moves board and helps organize local rides. He summed up the stores involvement in the app being "we just paid some cash, provided some pointers, some images and told them about all the local trails and routes we could think of.

"My City Bikes did all the heavy lifting," says Gruber. "It will be a great resource for guests and local alike."

Brian Parks, manager at Charleston Bicycle Company, says the store had hoped to participate even more in the development of the app "because, well, business has been great."

"I believe that is because the people of Charleston are being proactive in their search for healthier lifestyles," says Parks, adding that he thinks Charleston is one of the best places in the United States to ride bikes for commuting, exercise or "just plain fun."

"We can ride year 'round. There are more bikes lanes out there than ever before and the trend is continuing. Sure, traffic can be interesting. But if we - cars, bikes, everyone that uses the roads - follow the rules and laws of the road, then we can all make it safely to and from our families and be healthier because for it.'

But, Parks acknowledges, that riding in the city can be scary at first.

"That is where My City Bikes comes into play. It is another great and readily accessible resource to help people along the way to a healthier lifestyle," says Parks.

More tech coming

Apps to help move people in "alternative" ways (other than one person, one car) have been making news of late, notably Uber and how it is "disrupting" the taxi cab industry and other transportation models.

The San Francisco-based Uber connect passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire and ride sharing services.

Stephanie Hunt, chairwoman of Charleston Moves, says the Charleston Bikes app is a "baby step for what's to come" in the Lowcountry.

Hunt says Charleston Moves plans to create an app highlighting the Battery2Beach route, which runs from Isle of Palms to Folly Beach via Charleston's battery, that will be interactive and highlight attractions along it.

Ultimately, Hunt adds, the march toward interactive technology and the potential it has for the Charleston area's health and economy underscores the need for transportation improvements.

"The real story is how technology will be dramatically changing transit options, sooner than we imagine, and that cyclists can expect more interactive, real time info on safe routes. This highlights the urgent need for DOT, city and county planners to improve existing infrastructure. The demand is there, the users want safe access and handy high tech info on where the best routes are."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.