Janae Pierre: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Janae Pierre, filling in for Melissa Harris-Perry.
Now, before we pedal into the weekend, we want to leave you with the transformative Takeaway story, where we profile an unsung hero that's making an impact on their community. This week, we're looking at how one bicycle loving New Orleanian rallied his community to help resurrect his city's defunct bike-sharing program, making it more equitable and affordable. Joining me now is Geoff Coats, CEO of Blue Krewe. Hey, Geoff, how's it going?
Geoff Coats: It's going well. Thank you for having me.
Janae Pierre: Absolutely. Geoff, you must really love bikes. Where did that passion come from?
Geoff Coats: Well, like a lot of folks, I've been riding bikes since I was a little kid. I continued it through my adulthood here in New Orleans. I've always loved riding my bike, and it's a great way to get around the town, great way to keep myself happy, and a little bit healthy.
Janae Pierre: Give us a brief history here of New Orleans' bike-share program. How does a thriving program, which started in 2017, end up vanishing by 2020?
Geoff Coats: Yes. In 2017, the city launched Bike Share under a company called Social Bicycles, and I was grateful to be chosen to lead that operation. We were acquired in 2018 by Uber, and I ran the system for Uber for a couple years, but when the pandemic hit in 2020, Uber was already, I think, looking a little bit to get out of the micro-mobility space, the fancy word for bike-sharing. In May, I learned that I was going to have to let my team go and that they would be shutting down the system.
Janae Pierre: In what ways does a for-profit bike-share program run by Uber or some other for-profit entity get in the way of bike-sharing being affordable, equitable transportation alternative?
Geoff Coats: Yes. I think the big difference is that the larger players are looking for scale, and they are looking for a business model that obviously returns a profit for their shareholders. Sometimes that can come into conflict with what a community needs in terms of finding equitable transportation for the community.
For instance, we might have a great idea about something that would be beneficial for the people in New Orleans for our community, but we might hear, "Well, that doesn't scale in Barcelona," or, "We don't do that in Austin or Boston or Chicago, or wherever." I think that the beauty of a non-profit model is it allows us to bring to our community any ideas that make sense for our community.
Janae Pierre: Tell us how you were able to resurrect New Orleans' Bike Share program.
Geoff Coats: It was a group effort, for sure, a lot of great people involved. We call it community-run Bike Share, and it really was the community that brought it back. In May of 2020 when we found out that Uber was exiting the market, we began discussions with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana, who had been the title sponsor previously, began working with the Greater New Orleans foundation here in New Orleans, and began talking with the city to reimagine what Bike Share could be. In a way, we had had proof of concept using all the venture capital money, which was wonderful, and we knew we could do this on our own.
We basically began the assets that Uber no longer wanted a lot of those things, tools, bike stands, things we knew we might need, they just needed to get them out of the warehouse. We worked with another local non-profit called Bike Easy, and we were able to store those materials. We donated it to them with the understanding that if we could get Bike Share going again, they would donate them back to us, and really worked to build energy around this idea of how can we bring Bike Share back, but also bring it back in a way that would be equitable and sustainable. Somebody looking at a financial spreadsheet in San Francisco wouldn't one day just decide New Orleans didn't need Bike Share again.
Janae Pierre: In what ways can we trace the origins of New Orleans' Bike Share program back to 2005, Hurricane Katrina, and that recovery as well?
Geoff Coats: Yes. I think it was an important moment, obviously, for all of us here in New Orleans, and one of the things that came out of that tragedy was a spirit of community reimagining. There were a lot of these meetings where people would start to think about what a neighborhood could be. One of the things that came out of that was a strong desire all across the city for more walkable, more bike-able city that was not just dominated by the automobile.
From that, in 2008, the city began putting in bike lanes and went from pretty much zero bike lanes to over 100 miles of bike lanes in a couple of years. As part of that process, this was about the time that cities were starting to explore the idea of bike sharing. Members of the community came together and really led the city. It was a community-led vision and led the city to explore Bike Share to ultimately run a pilot program and then put out a request for proposals to run Bike Share that brought Social Bicycles here in 2017.
Janae Pierre: Okay, y'all. Quick break right here, and we'll be back talking more about bike-sharing in New Orleans right after this. All right, everyone. We're back with Geoff Coats, CEO of Blue Krewe, and we're talking about New Orleans' bike-sharing program, and what it's meant to the community there. Again, this is a community-based non-profit bike-sharing model operating in a large city. What are the big challenges for this program?
Geoff Coats: Well, I think the big challenge is, the beautiful thing about the venture capital-backed model is you just have large piles of money, which you don't have when you pivot to this non-profit model. We had to be smart, and we had to be strategic about the investments. That's a challenge.
The other thing specific to New Orleans and maybe some other cities is that when the for-profit players come in, often the business community gets to use Bike Share and the existence of this amenity for the community, and they're recruiting. If you're recruiting talent, and you're competing with San Francisco, with Austin, with Chicago, with Nashville for talent, it's nice to say that you have Bike Share.
Our business community was able to do that without having to necessarily invest in it. Part of our work at Blue Krewe is to engage with the business community here now and say, "Look, we've been able to restart this, we've been able to operate it now for the first year and a half. Let's all come together now and figure out ways to ensure its sustainability for the future."
Janae Pierre: Looking ahead, what are your hopes for the future of bike-sharing in New Orleans?
Geoff Coats: A city like New Orleans, it's compact, it's flat, it's really wonderful for biking. As we build more protected bike lanes, it just gets better and better. I see a future in which biking, a lot of our one-mile to three-mile trips that people are taking by automobile can be substituted. Those are perfect trips to be substituted for a bike, and we're running a fleet of e-bikes, pedal-assist e-bikes, so it makes it really easy for people to get things done.
We are working with the city. We are part of the city's Climate Action Plan to scale up our bikes up to a fleet of 2,000 and beyond. As a city on the frontlines of climate change and with challenges around transportation equity, and has certain health challenges around heart disease, it just makes sense to me that we can build a equitable, healthy, active transportation system that really moves New Orleans into a future for our kids.
Janae Pierre: Geoff Coats is CEO of Blue Krewe, which operates New Orleans' bike-sharing program. Geoff, thanks so much for your time.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.