Bikesharing gets rolling in Milwaukee

Ridership grows for Bublr Bikes

One of just many Bublr Bikes stations.
One of just many Bublr Bikes stations.

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:13 pm

It’s noon on a gorgeous late summer Friday and Tammy Lee is taking her sister and her sister’s friend on a bicycle tour of Milwaukee’s lakefront.

They ride from Tammy’s Lower East Side apartment to the historic Pierhead Lighthouse, a beacon on the southern end of the Historic Third Ward, where the Milwaukee River meets Lake Michigan in the shadow of the Hoan Bridge.

Tyler Gmyrek and Grace and Tammy Lee ride Bublr Bikes along Milwaukee’s lakefront.
Tyler Gmyrek and Grace and Tammy Lee ride Bublr Bikes along Milwaukee’s lakefront.

The sun glints off their shades as they approach the bright red lighthouse, smiling as the lake breeze hits their faces. The three wouldn’t have been able to take this trip just a couple of years ago.

Tammy, 36, is riding her own bike. But her sister, Grace Lee, 34, and Grace’s friend, Tyler Gmyrek, 29, are visiting Tammy from Toronto, Canada without their bikes.

So they rented bicycles for the afternoon from Bublr Bikes, a Milwaukee bikesharing company that allows riders to rent a bike as needed. Tammy, who has the day off from GE Healthcare, clued them in to the amenity.

“You see them around the city – the bright blue color,” Tammy said.

Bikesharing is not a novel concept. It’s available in most major cities now. But for Milwaukee, sharing a bike is a recent phenomenon. Bublr was launched in August 2014.

“We’re already familiar with these hourly bike rentals because Toronto has them – any big city has them,” Grace said. “We wanted to see the lakefront and this was a great way to see it. This made it really easy and convenient.”

The last mile

Grace and Gmyrek picked their Bublr bikes up at a station on East Ogden Avenue, but expected they would drop them off at a station at Discovery World after their ride. A Bublr bike can be picked up or dropped off at any of 40 stations across the city.

Grace said the pricing for a Bublr bike seemed pretty reasonable. She and Gmyrek had looked into renting Divvy bikes in Chicago, but weren’t on board with the pricing.

One of just many Bublr Bikes stations.
Just one of many Bublr Bikes stations.

“When we were in Chicago, there was an extra fee for going over 30 minutes,” Grace said. “We heard it was less convenient, like you always had to dock it every 30 minutes.”

That’s because most bikesharing systems are based on point-to-point travel, in a mission former Bublr executive director Kevin Hardman calls the “last mile concept.”

Hardman recently resigned as the leader of Bublr to start his own business (his resignation was announced after the magazine with the print version of this story went to press). He launched Bublr in 2014. James Davies, the operations director and general counsel of Bublr Bikes, has been named the interim executive director for the organization.

“The perception to some, maybe a lot of people, is that bikeshare is for entertainment,” Hardman said. “Bikeshare is beautiful because it completes that trip for people.”

The idea is the bikes would connect a commuter to his or her final destination, bringing the person the last mile to work. For this reason, Bublr has a partnership with Milwaukee County Transit System. The bike stations are often placed near bus stops, and the buses announce when a stop has a nearby Bublr station.

“We have this Route 6 that goes out to the New Berlin area and it serves BuySeasons and FedEx, but there’s a really big industrial park in New Berlin,” said Brendan Conway, spokesperson for MCTS. “How do those people get from basically Moorland Road into the industrial park?”

The last mile could also be to school, the grocery store, a nearby business meeting during the day or a restaurant for lunch.

In late August, Raymond Rebro, 18, was using a Bublr Bike for the first time.

Rebro took an MCTS bus from West Allis to Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue downtown, then purchased a 30-minute Bublr ride for $3 at the station on that corner.

After he completed his payment at the machine, it buzzed for 30 seconds to allow him to remove the bike locked in dock two. After one false start, he got the bike out and was on his way to freshman orientation at Milwaukee School of Engineering, about five blocks away.

“Once I realized I was looking at the right bike, then it was pretty easy,” Rebro said. “It’s pretty cheap – for a 30-minute ride, $3 is pretty good.”

Rebro heard about Bublr on Facebook months ago, and has seen people using it. He planned his trip online by locating the Bublr station downtown and making sure there was another one near MSOE.

“(Riding a Bublr is) faster and it seems pointless to take another bus. It would take more time to find a bus and get on it or wait for the bus to get there,” he said.

Rebro is considering using Bublr to get to class this school year. In that case, he would get a monthly pass. The commute usage would put him in Bublr’s target ridership market.

There are currently 40 Bublr stations in Milwaukee, with plans to expand to the suburbs and 55 stations by the end of the year, Hardman said. Most of those new stations will be in Wauwatosa, Shorewood and West Allis, funded through a federal Transportation Alternatives Program grant that contributed $500,000 to each city.

“We’re sort of going to take a breath from here, and say, ‘OK, where are we going to go?’ In order for it to truly be that last mile solution that is accessible to many people, we’ve got to continue growing the network,” Hardman said. “We’re in this because we love Milwaukee and we want to create an easy, simple, accessible form of transportation for people who live here.”

The last mile isn’t just commuters, Hardman said. It can be used to travel to or from entertainment events, as well.

“Summerfest for instance – we were at Summerfest and we were very near the designated Uber stop and there was a big mass of people waiting for Ubers and some of the people were just hopping on a Bublr and going,” he said. “Two years ago, both of those options didn’t exist.”

Bike zealot

Part of Hardman’s job was growing the Bublr rider base by preaching the bikesharing gospel. In August, for example, he spoke to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce young professionals group, FUEL Milwaukee, over lunch at the Brown Bottle at Schlitz Park.

“We need to continue to get more people involved to make Bublr successful,” Hardman said. “I’m just a big believer that cities are successful the deeper the choices are for the people that live and work there.”

Bike enthusiasts Bruce Keyes and Barry Mainwood got the idea for Bublr Bikes, along with Fix Development president Juli Kauffman, in 2011 and began raising the funds and building momentum.

Commercial real estate developer Gary Grunau helped them identify early seed money and set them up with an office at Schlitz Park.

Keyes, an attorney at Foley & Lardner LLP, works in the U.S. Bank Center downtown. Bikeshare is great for short trips during the workday, he said.

“I ride my bike to work,” Keyes said. “I know that I can go have lunch on Brady Street. This is a really great way to expand the horizons of where you can go over the lunch hour.”

Mainwood, managing partner at Mainly Editing Inc. in Milwaukee, said it’s also an opportunity for tourists like Lee and Gmyrek to explore a new city from a bike seat.

“The tourist is really a bonus,” Mainwood said. “Our real intent and as we continue to move forward is an economical transportation tool.”

The pair, who just completed the 175-mile Ride Across Wisconsin, had good visibility of the bike market in Milwaukee when they evaluated starting a bikeshare program. They determined of all the trips taken on all forms of transportation, Milwaukee was nearing 1 percent bike trips.

“Approaching that said that we have enough existing that we ought to be able to bring bikeshares and other bicycling amenities and succeed,” Keyes said.

Mainwood and Keyes first raised private funds, then worked on obtaining federal dollars, which have allowed further expansion. They said it’s hard to define whether the nonprofit is profitable at this point.

“We have earned revenues, we have contributed revenues and then any of the revenues that would be considered above and beyond our immediate needs are getting pumped back into expansion,” Keyes said.

They hired Hardman on in 2013 to bring Milwaukee’s version of bikeshare to life.

Another part of Hardman’s job was fundraising. Bublr has raised $5.6 million from 60 entities to help fund its operations and expansion. Hardman expects the organization will be in startup mode for a long time.

Bublr has about 15 employees, most of whom are out maintaining the bikes and rental system.

Bublr Bikes, which launched in August 2014, has grown to 15 employees.
Bublr Bikes, which launched in August 2014, has grown to 15 employees.

Milwaukee’s bright blue rideshare bikes are manufactured by BCycle, a division of Waterloo-based Trek Bicycle Corp.

The impact of Bublr goes beyond just extending public transportation in Milwaukee, Hardman said. It has the potential to create a more vibrant city, making the streets safer and getting more people on the sidewalks.

Hardman also aimed to make Bublr accessible to any Milwaukee resident. The system is in a cash payment pilot phase with the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee. Riders can pay cash at HACM to access a Bublr rental, and all HACM housing residents are eligible for a discounted $8 annual pass. The standard rate is $80 for unlimited 60-minute rides accessed via key fob. The machines only take credit and debit cards.

But on a recent weekday morning, there was no activity at the Bublr station on North Sixth Street and West Galena Street in Milwaukee’s Haymarket Neighborhood, a few blocks from HACM, from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Residents and commuters on the corner took the bus, walked, skateboarded and called cabs for transport.

“There’s technical issues to work out but we recognized very early on that making it available only to people with credit cards was leaving out a lot of people,” Hardman said.

Complementary options

The big idea is for transportation options to be more varied and to complement each other.

MCTS partnered with Bublr this year, and both hope to work together to integrate their systems with the streetcar that will be built in downtown Milwaukee. And the planned MCTS Bus Rapid Transit line will connect downtown with the Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa, adding another option for commuters.

Bublr Rides by Year
Bublr Rides by Year

“We have interior ads (on MCTS buses). We have some of our logo on some of their bikes,” Conway said. “It’s one more easy way to convince people to leave their car at home, leave their keys at home. We support anything that’s going to enhance public transportation.”

Milwaukee is hardly the first city to install a bikeshare system, but watching others gave it an advantage when it came time to install its own, Hardman said. And while population density here isn’t nearly as high as cities like Chicago, where the Divvy bikeshare system has found success, Bublr will succeed by providing more options, he said.

“(Milwaukee) is denser than many of the cities that had bikeshare prior to us launching,” he said. “It’s denser than Indianapolis, it’s denser than Cincinnati. Bike share is here to stay, we are absolutely convinced, as a form of urban transportation.”

Bublr’s adoption rate has risen dramatically this year, as people figured out how to use it and told their friends about it, he said. The Bublr station network also expanded considerably last fall and this year.

As of Sept. 9, 52,613 Bublr rides had been taken in 2016, far surpassing all of 2015, when 22,694 rides were taken.

From its member surveys, Bublr has found riders are pretty evenly spread across generations.

“What we do know is this is not exclusively millennials at all. With our regular users, the folks that have a pass, my intuition strongly says that that skews much older,” Hardman said.

But at the same time, students like Rebro are an important segment.

“We stayed open during last winter and most of that ridership, there was a five-month stretch from November to March…60 percent of our trips were taken by (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) students,” he said.

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