Engineers and Community Leaders Create Bikeshare Program

  • Author: Laurel Schwartz
  • Date: August 24, 2023

In Fort Smith, AR, the University of Arkansas’s Civil Engineering Department partnered with the municipality to create a bikeshare program using an National Science Foundation (NSF) Civic Innovation Challenge Grant.

Fort Smith, AR is a small city located on the Arkansas River. With a population density of only 1,429 people per square mile and less than 100,000 residents overall, the municipality has historically struggled with establishing a public transportation program. A committee of community leaders identified a bike share program as a potential solution and they named the program ‘Ride 4 Smiles.”


Establishing the program

Dr. Suman Mitra, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Arkansas wanted to make transportation safer and more equitably accessible to all members of the community. “People who rely on public transportation are vulnerable in any society,” he said.

Working with community leaders, Dr. Mitra and the team identified neighborhoods with limited alternative transportation options. They considered three different business models:

  1. hire an operator that would manage the entire program, decide the pricing structure, and collect the revenue

  2. have the city own the assets of the bikes and supporting equipment and manage an operator, with the city deciding the pricing structure and collecting the revenue

  3. create a partnership program with the operator owning the asset, the city collecting the revenue, and the city paying the operator

The team opted to the create a partnership with Tandem Mobility, a turnkey solution that handles “everything including hardware, software, operations, and customer support.” The bikes are equipped with lights in the front and rear, and a GPS tracker. Customers can get support via a phone number, email, and an app managed by Tandem Mobility. The committee is also collaborating with the local police to get support if anything happens to the user or the bicycle.

While the team recognized that having a dockless program would provide more options to users, the municipality opted for more structure. The team collaborated with community stakeholders to identify 8 dock locations for 40 regular bikes and 20 e-bikes.

As the team worked to make the program seamless, they realized that about 20% of the community they served didn’t have smartphones, a bank account or a credit card they could use to rent the bikes. To accommodate these obstacles, the team developed RFID (radio frequency identification) cards that can be pre-loaded with cash at the local library.

Ongoing challenges

Fort Smith’s roads are generally safe to bike on, but the city does not yet have dedicated bike lanes. “We created the bike share program first to put pressure on the city to make the bike routes safer,” explained Dr. Mitra.

The city is currently investing in a mobility coordinator to plan bike trails now, but the process is expected to take several years to complete. Without protected bike lanes, customers are discouraged from using the bikes at night.

To evaluate the progress of the pilot, the team has held focus groups with community members who use and don’t use the bike share program. “We want to know why non-users aren’t using it and we want to know the experience users have,” said Dr. Mitra.

Focus group participants are compensated $50-$75 per group and are recruited through social media and brochures and flyers given out throughout the city. Participants are also provided with bike helmets and reflective vests. To date, they have held four focus groups. In response to feedback, the team has already moved four docking stations to new locations.

To attract users who are new to biking, the team even had a few events where they gave bike lessons, though turnout was low. Each month, they hold a bike riding club where community members learn about how to ride around their city and use the bike share program.

Initially, the bikes were free to rent to attract new users. Today, the regular geared cruiser bikes are free for the first 30 minutes, and thereafter cost $.50 + $.50 per 30 minutes. E-bikes are free for the first 30 minutes and thereafter cost $1.00 + $1.00 per 30 minutes.

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