Regional planners seek federal money for bike-share program in Northampton and Amherst

Last modified: Sunday, February 28, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — Regional planners are seeking federal funding to pay for a bike share program, to start within the next two years, that would offer people in Northampton and Amherst the opportunity to pay small fees to access bicycles for commuting and recreation.

The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, which is leading this effort known as ValleyBike, will soon submit an application for $1.1 million in federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grants to cover the capital costs of the program, Christopher Curtis, the agency’s chief planner, said in a telephone interview Friday.

“The next significant step is we need to find the money, essentially,” Curtis said.

The funding application comes after a regional compact in support of ValleyBike was recently signed by Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, former Amherst interim town manager David Ziomek, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and Timothy Brennan, executive director of the commission.

While the commission applied for funding last year, Curtis said there is more optimism in 2016 that ValleyBike will get on the next regional transportation plan, and will be able to access federal transportation dollars.

“We think we have a better chance at it now that the memorandum of understanding is signed,” Curtis said.

Hubway, Citibike models

Curtis said there are numerous benefits to having a regional bike share program, which would be modeled after the Hubway in Boston and Citibike in New York. These include economic development, connecting people to their workplaces and homes from the expanded rail and bus systems, reduced dependence on automobiles and the opportunity for people to get more exercise.

A final draft study of the regional program, prepared by Alta Planning + Design of Cambridge, shows that the program would have 234 bicycles at 26 stations in the four communities.

The capital costs would include $187,200 to purchase the bicycles, $828,100 to build the kiosks and $80,000 to pay for administration.

But even if the federal grants cover these costs, that leaves $429,624 in annual operations expenses which would have to be paid through a combination of user fees, corporate sponsorship, advertising and possibly some public funds.

“The key thing is to identify corporate sponsors or a series of corporate sponsors to assist us in this launch,” Curtis said.

Curtis said PVPC has already been in touch with eight to 10 potential sponsors. It is uncertain if the region could get one sponsor, such as New Balance in Boston and CitiBank in New York, he added.

Wayne Feiden, the director of Northampton’s office of planning and sustainability, said the PVPC Bike Share Advisory Committee, which has representatives from the communities and UMass, understands that grant funding would not cover all the costs.

“We’ll be looking for a sponsor of the entire system and individual station sponsors,” Feiden said.

User fees will include both annual subscription packages, and also 24-hour tourist passes, Feiden said, adding that the revenue from these fees will be similar to bus fares, which typically only cover about one quarter of the operation costs for PVTA.

Pilot program

Alta’s final draft report also suggests that ValleyBike should start on a smaller scale in Northampton and Amherst before expanding to Springfield and Holyoke.

“Serious consideration for breaking up the first phase into two sub-phases should be made ... as the regional system may ultimately benefit from a pilot project consisting of only 13 stations in Northampton and Amherst,” the report states. “This more targeted launch will help to build awareness of bike share regionally and promote a bike share culture in communities in which bicycling is currently a more common form of transportation and recreation.”

Curtis said it is likely that ValleyBike will start on a smaller scale. “At this point, that seems to be the sequence that makes the most sense,” Curtis said.

While bike-sharing programs have started in more urban areas, Feiden said he is confident that it can find success in the Pioneer Valley.

“We’ve been watching this for a long time and we think this trend will continue,” Feiden said.

Stephanie Ciccarello, the sustainability director for Amherst, said she is convinced that ValleyBike will be a popular alternative, especially for college-age people.

“We believe there are students who would use bikes to be able to commute between the campuses,” Ciccarello said.

Alta also recommends that both Northampton and Amherst begin planning locations for some of the bike kiosks.

In Northampton, the possible sites include the entrance to Cooley Dickinson Hospital at the intersection of Locust and North Elm streets, in front of John M. Greene Hall at the intersection of Elm and Prospect streets, next to the rail trail crossing on Pleasant Street, and at the intersection of Main and Keyes streets in Florence.

Among the sites where kiosks could be in Amherst are three on the University of Massachusetts campus, near the Student Union, the Fine Arts Center and in the Southwest residential area; one on Boltwood Avenue next to Converse Hall on the Amherst College campus’ and another on South Pleasant Street next to the North Common.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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