Dearborn’s bikeshare is on a roll

When Dearborn launched a bike share program in June 2017, no one was certain if the 10 Zagster stations dotted throughout the east and west ends of the city would see any use. Dearborn is, after all, the home of Ford Motor Company and the virtual birthplace of the modern American automobile.


Still, the bike share concept was supported by Dearborn Mayor John O’Reilly, Jr., who publicly encouraged residents and visitors to grab one of 50 cruiser-style bicycles and get busy exploring the city. Making bikes available at the library, the transit center, the Arab American National Museum, and other central locations added torque to the city’s multimodal plan to make travel healthier and more accessible.


Those who were worried needn’t have been. From the start, Dearborn reportedly has been one of the most popular Zagster installations in the country, and in less than two years, the program has grown to 14 stations--one station added at The Henry Ford in 2018, and three additional added in spring of 2019 at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Overall, Dearborn averages 1.4 rides per bike, just shy of the 1.7 national average. “[The number] is impressive, given the size of the market,” says Phil LeClare, spokesman for Zagster.


Devised through a partnership between the City of Dearborn, Beaumont Health, and Dearborn business owners Don and Mary Kosch, the bike share adheres to a goal of creating environments conducive to movement and healthful activity established by Healthy Dearborn, a coalition of stakeholders that want to create a culture of health in the city. Beaumont and the Kosch family, who are the individuals behind Dearborn Sausage, together donated $1.2 million toward the program.


The bike share was a project on a multimodal wish list for the city when Cristina Sheppard-Decius came on board as director of the West Dearborn Downtown Development Authority (DDA).


“This was something the city wanted to pursue. Dave Norwood, the sustainability coordinator with the city, had some interns looking at things that were needed in the city, and this is one of those things that came out of it,” says Sheppard-Decius. “They were actively pursuing a potential funder to help with the bike share program and I helped work with Zagster to get them on board.”


The Kosch family’s commitment was 10 stations for a period of six years. Each station holds up to 10 bicycles but is typically stocked with five cycles, leaving space to accommodate returned cycles from trips that initiated at another station.


With an annual $20 membership, patrons can unlock a bike through a smartphone app. Members’ rides are free for the first two hours, then cost $2 per hour, up to $20 per ride. Fenders, chain guards, and a handlebar basket make the bikes commuter-friendly.


“When we launched in 2017, we honestly had a really good reception from people,” says Sheppard-Decius. “From the get-go, we had one of the best rates of new communities actively utilizing the bike share program.”


Creating a cycling culture


Dearborn joins a growing number of metro Detroit communities that are working to make roads less hostile to pedestrians and cyclists through road diets, bike lanes, shared-use paths, and education for everyone about how to safely and effectively share the road.


Residents aren’t always on board with all these changes, and new ways of thinking can evolve slowly, says Sheppard-Decius.


“For Dearborn, this is changing the culture of what has been the norm. There was initial resistance...on how we are using road systems,” she says. What is helping is the support of the mayor and of the city council to implement the city’s master plan.


But change is step-by-step. “It’s still probably relatively too new for Dearborn to have bike lanes, but they are supportive [of the bikeshare] for recreation and safer, more accessible paths for travel. Overarching goals of the Dearborn 2030 Master Plan include “increase walkable and bikeable connections” and “slow traffic to create a sense of place that is safe…”


As former executive director for the Ferndale DDA during the re-configurations on Nine Mile Road, Sheppard-Decius has plenty of experience on this path. She says remaining focused on what is “holistically good for the community” helps everyone through the process, and in time, resistance decreases.


“When all was said and done [Ferndale’s road diet] was a vast improvement. The current front doors on the businesses in Ferndale were their back doors. It completely changed the culture and the economy of the downtown, and that’s why you continue to see more and more road changes throughout the city of Ferndale. We will always have naysayers complain but once it’s up and running, the benefits are there,” she says.


For now, Dearborn is focusing on connecting people to its twin downtown areas using two wheels instead of four, with eventual economic benefit to the businesses. Cycling advocacy group Bike Dearborn is focusing on creating a cycling culture in the city and has been awarded a micro-grant from the League of Michigan Bicyclists to install two bike repair stations downtown and on the Rouge River Gateway Trail, as part of The Better Bike Project.


“We see a lot of recreation with the bike share, not just point-to-point use,” says Sheppard-Decius. “People are coming out and helping improve the environment of the downtown. They realize they can go to a restaurant and then tool around for a little while, just enjoy being out and about. It’s good not so much as a business bottom line generator but as a community generator. It improves the aesthetics and draws people in and that leads to potential sales for the businesses.”


As a method of increasing accessibility to amenities, businesses, resources, and services regardless of economic status, Dearborn’s bike share shines.


“If you get off the bus and need to get to your next destination but don't have a car, having a bike available will get you the last mile to your destination,” says Sheppard-Decius.


Cycles connect the colleges, too


A group of student leaders at the University of Michigan-Dearborn saw the need for increased mobility on the 200-acre campus and approached the school with a big ask: access to free bike transportation. They worked with the university’s senior manager for business affairs Marc Brigolin to make it happen.


It didn’t take much to get the school on board, given the chancellor commutes by bike to work during warm weather--and the fact that Dearborn already had a tested bike share program in place.


“The primary reason we went to Zagster is that they are connected into the community where we want students, faculty, and staff to be able to access,” says Jeff Evans, vice chancellor for Business Affairs. GPS technology, a professional business approach, and a willingness to work with the university to provide free memberships to students, faculty, and staff, sealed the deal. “We were approached by electric scooter companies, but knowing that we can connect to 11 other existing stations, Zagster was our strongest connection.”


In April 2019, the school unveiled three Zagster stations. Bikes are available at the University Center, The Union at Dearborn, and at and Fairlane Center, a private housing development that is home to 600 U-M Dearborn students. So far, 250 students and staff have become members, and have taken more than 1,000 trips on the bikes, according to data from Zagster.


Bicycle accessibility, especially to nearby West Dearborn, has been a decade in the making, with businesses, local government, and the university looking for more ways to connect. Between U-M Dearborn and nearby Henry Ford College, thousands of student residents are more mobile, at least during bike-friendly weather.


“Dearborn is becoming more and more of a college town now,” says Evans.


Although the stations were installed just in time for the campus to clear out for the relatively quieter summer season, Evans and Brigolin are confident that the bike share will be a popular addition to fall collegiate activities, and they’ll be watching closely to make sure everyone involved is safe. They’ve even worked with public safety officials on best practices and will have a safety campaign on campus during the fall semester. A close eye on traffic patterns of both cyclists and pedestrians will help them determine when cyclists should dismount and walk their bikes on sidewalks.


“Even though it’s not a requirement to wear a helmet, we are encouraging it strongly,” says Evans. We don’t know how many students will bring a helmet with them to campus, but our children are doing better than we are with regard to this. Younger people can help change the culture and student government leaders are carrying a torch for it. With them, the culture [of wearing a helmet] will change.”

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Read more articles by Claire Charlton.

Fascination drives Claire Charlton to write features and profiles. Always interested in people and their stories, Claire is dedicated to the art of interviewing. A freelancer for a dozen years, Claire writes about health, fitness, business and fun. When she’s not writing, drinking coffee or hanging with her family, Claire runs endurance events, practices yoga, and volunteers with lots of nonprofits.