"Sometimes the city needs to remember that Raleigh is bigger than just downtown and the surrounding ring."
Drive around Raleigh on a rainy day and you'll see people standing at uncovered bus stops, soaking wet. They wouldn't be out there if they had another way of getting to work, school, or the grocery store. But they don't.
Juxtapose that image with this: last week, the city council voted to bring a bike-share program to downtown, a proposal that has enjoyed support from many downtown residents and businesses, as well as booster organizations like the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and WakeUp Wake County.
The lone dissenter was council member Kay Crowder, who called her vote opposing the bike share a "value judgment." The city, Crowder points out, will spend more than $650,000 a year on operating costs for a program that will serve only 8 percent of the city's population. She thinks that money would be better spent making upgrades to existing infrastructure—benches and bus shelters, sidewalks and crosswalks—for the people who use the city's transit system.
"We want to be a city of innovation, and we want to be a city for all the people," Crowder said at last week's council meeting. "There are many people in this city who are broken, poor, homeless, downtrodden, children without homes, the elderly. These people need our help also."
There's a view among proponents of the sharing economy that the city council is "reactionary" on issues like bike share, loosening food truck regulations, and legalizing Airbnb, and that council members need to get ahead of the curve to bolster the city's cool factor. These folks seem to be getting their way: the city also relaxed its food-truck policy last week, and Mayor Nancy McFarlane has said the Airbnb rules will be in place in a few months.
But there's also the view that, in simply going along with what downtown advocates want, other residents will be left, quite literally, out in the cold. And the rain.
"Sometimes the city needs to remember that Raleigh is bigger than just downtown and the surrounding ring," Crowder says. "We need to do things that help all people in the city of Raleigh, not in just one area."
What isn't in dispute are the benefits to cities of having a bike-share program.
"The overwhelming consensus among cities that have bike-share programs is that bike share has been successful," says Dianna Ward, the executive director of Charlotte's B-Cycle program and the secretary of the North American Bikeshare Association. Bike shares promote public health, cut down on congestion, and make cities more attractive to new employers seeking a young, hip talent pool.
There are different models for funding these programs. Charlotte's is paid for through sponsorships. Chattanooga's uses sponsorships and federal grants. San Antonio made an initial investment in equipment using federal grants, and now its program is operated by a nonprofit. And just last week, after experimenting with a nonprofit-run bike share, Seattle bought its system for $1.4 million. It plans to use sponsorships and advertising to recoup costs down the road.
In Raleigh, city officials are looking toward a $2 million federal grant to fund the start-up. The city council will then spend $653,000 a year to pay the salaries of the seven-and-a-half positions it will need to fill, as well as capital costs, IT and communications, a call center, fees, marketing, and insurance. The city expects to recover $215,000 of that in user fees and another $220,000 from corporate sponsorships.
The rest—about $220,000 a year—will come from taxpayers. In exchange, they'll get thirty bike-share stations, with three hundred bikes, across a 6.7-square-mile area around downtown starting in fall 2017.
It's that part Crowder objects to: Why, she asks, is the city willing to cough up hundreds of thousands of dollars to benefit downtowners when there are so many other pressing needs?
"We have heard from experts time and time again, we need benches and bus shelters, and sidewalks and crosswalks for people to get to them," she says.
Those upgrades will be especially crucial if Wake County voters pass a transit referendum later this year. After all that happens, Crowder says, a bike share will make more sense.
"I'm not opposed to bike share, [but] though it is exciting, sparkly, and new, it does not help the greater good of my citizenry," Crowder says. "I would rather spend money helping [bus riders] make better lives for themselves."
While council members were sympathetic to Crowder's point, it wasn't enough to sway them.
"Everyone is aware of our limited resources, and there are many worthy needs that come before us," Russ Stephenson, usually an ally of Crowder, said at last week's meeting. "If we find we are not getting enough sponsors, we will re-evaluate in three years. Or we will find plenty of sponsors and that the program is self-supporting. But we need to take these first steps to see if it will work."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Does Kay Crowder Have a Point?"