Blue Bike, the City of Columbia's bike share program that began last year, is set to expand through a partnership with The COMET bus system.
The COMET is investing $330,000 in the Blue Bike program, including money to add 10 new bike share stations throughout the city. The number of bicycles in the system — currently 135 — will remain the same for now. City officials have said an additional 90 bicycles and more stations could come in a future phase. The bike share program officially kicked off last fall with BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina as its title sponsor.
According to information provided by the city, since Blue Bike launched last fall, there have been nearly 5,300 total trips on the bikes, accounting for more than 11,000 miles. The most popular bike stations have been at Riverfront Park, Benedict College and at Main and Gervais streets.
COMET executive director John Andoh says Federal Transit Administration funding earmarked for the transit system is being provided for Blue Bike's expansion.
"Every year, we are supposed to spend one percent of our federal funds for what is called associate transit enhancements," Andoh said on Thursday. "Bicycle amenities are treated as an associate transit enhancement. So, this allows us to meet FTA requirements by spending on bicycle requirements. We're spending $250,000 to construct the 10 stations, and $70,000 to allow COMET users to access the system, and helping with operational costs to support the program."
COMET riders are able to ride Blue Bikes for free. According to Andoh, COMET users can show their bus pass to a bus driver and receive a code. That code can then be used to get a Blue Bike for a 45 minute session.
The bus boss says one goal of COMET's partnership with the bike share program is to give bus users "first mile, last mile" coverage.
"What happens, in essence, is that a COMET rider could start at their home, and they could walk to a COMET bus stop, ride a bus to downtown and, let's say their job is at the State House, instead of waiting for another COMET bus route, they could get a bicycle, ride the bicycle to the State House and drop it at one of the docking stations nearby, and they would have had that last mile extension to get them where they needed to go," Andoh says.
Sixth-term District 1 City Councilman Sam Davis praised the bus system's partnership with the bike share program. The veteran councilman stressed the importance of having a plethora of options in regards to transit.
"Bike share is relatively inexpensive and it is a quick infrastructure extension for the city's public transportation system, allowing it to serve as a convenient last mile connector and function as transit-by-bike," Davis says.
COMET board chairman Ronald Anderson touted the environmental aspect of joining forces with the bike share initiative.
"Transportation is not only buses," Anderson says. "It's also walking, riding, ridesharing and private transit. The more mobility options we can provide the public, the more likely they are to avoid driving, making our air cleaner and our community healthier."
The bus-bike partnership is just the latest of several new moves the COMET has undertaken in the last year.
It's changed hours and routes of the free Soda Cap Connector buses, in hopes of pumping up ridership. The bus system has partnered with Lyft and Uber to provide discount car rides to area grocery stores, an effort specifically undertaken to address food deserts in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods. The COMET also reinstated its routes to Columbia Metropolitan Airport, and is now running buses out to some Lexington County industries, such as Nephron and Amazon.
Andoh says some of COMET's initiatives — like the discount rideshare services to grocery stores or the new partnership with Blue Bike — are a nod to a changing transit landscape.
"Public transit, just as it stands with buses and vans, is starting to not be the wave of the future," Andoh says. "They are just one part of the solution. We need to start finding ways to move people that is beyond the bus. In order for us to attract transit ridership, we need to be creative, we need to be festive and we need to be fun. Bicycles are a perfect way to illustrate that."