‘Coalition of Willing’ raises $500K to save Red Bike

Just a few days after Red Bike declared a need to shutter operations for good due to financial challenges, a group of community partners – labeled the “Coalition of the Willing” – have come up with a plan to make sure the bike-share system remains open in Cincinnati.

At least temporarily.

On Thursday, representatives from a mixture of government offices, foundations, transportation agencies and nonprofits gathered outside City Hall to announce they’d found a previously unavailable $500,000 to help Red Bike continue operations for the next year.

Supporters gather outside City Hall to unveil a plan to save Red Bike. (Photo: Office of Mayor Aftab Pureval)

The group held its first meeting on Monday at the urging of City Council Member Mark Jeffreys, an outspoken advocate for public transit and transportation equity during his two-plus years in office.

Just three days later the coalition had hammered out details of a short-term sustainability for Red Bike. As a result, the system will reopen for the first time since mid-December on May 13.

“This past year at Red Bike we got used to saying about fundraising that everyone seemed interested, but no one wanted to dip their toe in the water first,” said Anastasia Mileham, Red Bike’s board chair. “With Councilman Mark Jeffreys’ leadership, everyone jumped into the pool at once.”

How did we get here?

The tone of the midday news conference in downtown Cincinnati was in stark contrast to the dire messaging delivered by Mileham and the Red Bike team on March 14.

At the time, Mileham – who’s also the executive director of Cincinnati Experience – voiced that, despite record-setting ridership numbers in 2023, the bike-share didn’t have enough money to continue operations.

Red Bike’s annual operating budget is between $850,000 and $900,000. Only about 34% of that comes from the fare box.

During its nearly 10-year history, Red Bike had come to rely on the $250,000 it received annually from its longtime major sponsor, UC Health. That agreement ended last year, and the local health care system opted not to sign another deal.

Losing that funding caused everything to cascade, Red Bike leadership told Movers & Makers last month.

One of 72 Red Bike stations across Greater Cincinnati.

“Operational funding challenges are a nationwide issue in bike share,” Mileham added, using Minneapolis and Houston as examples of bike-share systems that have closed. Those that remain open – Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Austin, to name a few – receive funding through local transit systems and, in some cases, city funding.

Despite repeated conversations with potential corporate sponsors and other supporters, Red Bike failed to secure the funding needed to ensure long-term operations, Mileham said.

As a result, the nonprofit bike-share network decided in November to raise prices for the first time. A month later, the Red Bike board planned a temporary shutdown during winter months to find a new operational funding source.

After not finding a new sponsor, Mileham and her board were left with no option but to close the system and prepare a plan for dissolution.

At the time of the board’s decision to cease operations, Red Bike had 72 different stations in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The leadership team had plans – and capital funding – to expand in the near future in areas such Avondale, the Wasson Way trail, Roselawn and Bond Hill.

“Obviously, we can’t spend what we don’t have, and it was our fiscal responsibility as a board to use the remaining cash to properly account for and dispose of Red Bike assets,” Mileham said last week.

Light at the end of the bike path

Despite the news of the closure, Jeffreys and Mileham vowed to keep Red Bike – or at least some form of bike share – operational in Greater Cincinnati.

Jeffreys described bike share as not only adding to the vibrancy of downtown and city neighborhoods by offering a fun way to explore Cincinnati. But it also provides a needed last-mile transportation option for the many residents who don’t own a car.

There are several parts of the region where access to a personal vehicle remains under 50%, according to data shared by Jeffreys.

As the Red Bike team made the rounds to inform its partners – the city of Cincinnati being first – pledges of support began to appear.

Jeffreys’ so-called “Coalition of the Willing” consists of the city of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Regional Chamber, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, the Haile Foundation, Interact for Health, Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Duke Energy, Tri-State Trails, Hamilton County, Visit Cincy, the city of Covington, Devou Good Foundation and FC Cincinnati.

Together, they spent the early part of this week working to create what Mileham called a “bridge plan” that would enable Red Bike to continue working toward a sustainable funding model for the future.

The involved parties have pledged a combined $450,000. That figure includes $100,000 from the Haile Foundation. Jeffreys said he expects the city to approve roughly $200,000 ($197,000) for the project in the next few weeks. Other pledges have come from Duke Energy, SORTA, Greater Cincinnati Foundation and Interact for Health.

Project partners also hope to raise another $50,000 through an initiative at Rhinegeist Brewery that runs through April 30.

“It says something about our community that when we have a problem, getting the right people in the room, that we’re able to identify solutions and implement them,” Jeffreys said, calling the approach “inspiring.”

“I think (this approach) leads the way for so many other issues and challenges that we face as a city,” he added.

Building a successful path forward

That $500,000 community investment should be enough to allow Red Bike to reopen the system for at least 12 months, Mileham said. But the nonprofit needs to come up with a long-term strategic plan.

In addition to a $25,000 cash commitment to operating funds, Interact for Health offered to provide a consultant to help with organizational restructuring. That process will involve evaluating Red Bike’s current board and staffing models.

Ahead of the previously expected closure, Red Bike laid off its entire 11-person staff. Executive director Doug McClintock has remained on the payroll to help deal with the transitional phase. So far, Red Bike has managed to bring back its former operations manager and lead mechanic. But it will need to onboard new technicians over the next few weeks in order to start repairing bikes, assembling new e-bikes and distributing all of them to stations in time for the reopening.

“Getting the system up and running again is the focus first and foremost,” Jeffreys said. “Once we have that in place, then we need to start doing some of the longer-term planning.”

Perhaps the consultant’s most significant work will be in the development of a new funding model to ensure this bike-share situation doesn’t happen again in the near or distant future.

“That work needs to be done, frankly, towards the end of this year,” he added, “so as we go into next year, we can start implementing it and finding success.”

Red Bike

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