The advent of bike sharing programs means it has never been easier to get a bike when visiting a city: just download an app, find a bike at a station, and ride away. This innovation has been slow to reach the suburbs, but thanks to the presence of the university, Princeton has been home to a robust bike-sharing network, with 14 stations all around campus and at key locations in town, since 2014.
To create this network Princeton University contracted with Zagster, a venture-funded company based in Boston that creates bike share programs for companies, organizations, and communities around the country. Zagster bikes area now spreading along the Route 1 corridor via corporate and government clients. NRG, Princeton Shopping Center, the Institute for Advanced Study, Courtyard by Marriott in Princeton, Plainsboro Township, and Carnegie Center now boast Zagster stations.
The latest client to embrace bike sharing is the Mercer County parks system, which has opened a station at Mercer Lake and another at Maidenhead Trail Pole Farm, which connects to the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail. Novo Nordisk, on Scudders Mill Road in Plainsboro, plans to introduce a Zagster station next month. All together there are about 160 bikes in the area (all maintained by a single independent contractor hired by Zagster).
“It’s been going really well from a business development standpoint,” says Karl Alexander, marketing manager for the company. Alexander will speak at the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, July 17, at 7:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club. Tickets are $40, $25 for members. For more information, visit www.princetonmercerchamber.com.
Alexander says the company has seen a 42 percent increase in usage year-over-year since being introduced. He credits this with students becoming more familiar with the system alongside a general greater interest in biking from the public.
Contrary to the typical tech company ethos of “disruption,” Zagster tries to move slowly to avoid breaking things in the communities where it operates. That’s why its has been slow to introduce another innovation that has been foisted upon cities in the past few years: e-scooters. In cities like Los Angeles and Washington D.C. anyone can rent small electric scooters and leave them at their destinations. Because the scooters are “dockless,” meaning they don’t need bike racks, they get tend to get left everywhere. Another frequent complaint about the scooters is that riders tend to use the sidewalk, annoying pedestrians.
Alexander says that is why Zagster is testing out electronic bikes instead of scooters — they still use a dock, and their place in the public right-of-way is much better understood.
“E-scooters as a product are very convenient for users and relatively affordable. However, management of right-of-way has been the biggest negative outcome that certain communities have seen,” Alexander says.
Zagster plans to continue adding more stations and bikes to its network. Trenton could be the site of future expansion. The company has been having discussions with municipal governments as well as the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association to discuss ways to get more people out of cars and on to bikes.
Alexander says communities looking to become more bike friendly should prioritize building bike infrastructure that is fully separated and protected from car traffic. Companies can also encourage biking by building “bike infrastructure” for their employees, such as showers and locker rooms so people can shower once they get to work.
A good example of successful bike infrastructure in the region is the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail, a circular trail that, when complete, will run in a 22-mile loop through Lawrence and Hopewell townships. Currently, more than 20 miles have been built of the planned route. It is already popular among employees of companies along the trail route, such as Educational Testing Service and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Alexander bikes to his job at Zagster’s Boston headquarters. He grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his mother was a children’s librarian and his father was a graphic designer and account manager. He is a 2012 graduate of Bates College in Maine and the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where he earned a master’s degree in urban planning and community development.
Alexander sees the personal transport sharing industry changing rapidly as technology improves. Even bike technology is rapidly evolving — a company called Cyclotron recently introduced a bike with spokeless wheels and airless tires.
But in keeping with Zagster’s ethos, Alexander says the adoption of this technology will not simply be to dump it in unprepared communities. “You have to take the time to look at what works best for the community, whether that’s bikes or scooters, or if it is something else entirely, like increasing walkability,” he says. “You have to think before you act. You’ll probably be better off in the long run.”
Because Zagster contracts through the communities themselves, the communities ultimately control the branding of its bike sharing networks and have a say in how they operate. “It’s a more successful approach,” Alexander says. “We’re innovating for people, not for technology.”