Americans have long lusted after the bikes that are publicly available in many European and Asian cities. This week, we’re getting an extensive bike program of our own. To celebrate Earth Day tomorrow, Denver is launching America’s first city-wide bike-sharing program.

They’re working with a company called B-cycle, which is the brainchild of Crispin Porter + Bogusky. An ad agency might not be on the short list of groups you’d predict would get involved in public biking, but Crispin is using its considerable marketing experience to get bike sharing off the ground in the U.S.

B-cycle was created as a partnership between Crispin Porter, health insurance provider Humana and bike maker Trek. Humana implemented the bike sharing idea during the 2008 DNC and RNC conventions. The company partnered with Crispin Porter in November of 2008 to get a more permanent bike programmed installed in cities. It’s taken two years to come to fruition.

It may seem strange for an ad agency to get involved in such a public health issue, but Andrew Davidson, account director at Crispin Porter and acting CMO of B-cycle, tells Econsultancy:

“There’s a lot of great agencies, but there’s not a lot that are like this
agency. Our prime mandate is culture change. We live and breath that
every day, whether it’s an ad campaign or more strategic thinking or
part of our innovations group.”

This program also illustrates how big and sall Crispin can think. The agency has designed many elements of the B-cycle program, from the industrial design of the racks and kisoks to the website and the backend technology. In Denver they sold off the entire package to the city, and it will be run by a non-profit group called Denver Bike Sharing. 

Starting this week, there will now be a 500-bicycle, 50-station bike-share system in the city.

RFID cards will let users check out bicycles at individual racks with a
quick swipe. The bike will also be equipped with GPS tracking devices.
Online, users can access their member profiles, which will track how far
they rode, how many calories they burned and the route they took.
B-cycle also thinks that will help with stolen vehicles.

An annual subscription to B-cycle will cost $65. The day rate is $5 and weekly it costs $20.

B-cycle also set up
other avenues for revenue, including ad placements on various parts of
the city-wide bike system, and Davidson says that this is part of what makes B-cycle work. Many cities have tried to get bike sharing started, but “no one brought the right formula forward.”

Cities using B-cycle can work with both user sibscriptions and ad dollars to fund the program. Says Davidson:

“User revenue is a key driver for the success of the system. But even if you hit the
baseline targets on up to the highest projections, advertising is a critical
component. Some additional form of funding is going to be neccessary to
support the system. Look around society — all forms of public transportation have some additional funding

B-cycle is continuing its efforts with a website to encourage people to
get bike sharing programs in their own cities, called Who Wants It More?. The effort is already garnering considerable buzz online and there are plenty of social sharing elements, like the GPS features that are likely to have users continuing to name drop the group after the program goes live.

The group is very much focused on healthier living and making urban areas greener. Davidson points out that 40% of all trips in the car are less than 5 miles.  And 60% of emissions in
a vehicle happen in the first ten minutes. “We get into our cars all
the time when a bike would suffice.”

But B-cycle is decidedly not a charity. The bike program looks a lot like Zipcar’s vehicle sharing program, and while the group is selling its program to some cities, it plans to run it in others. Davidson says that either route works for B-cycle, but it is dependant on making money from urban biking.

“I would argue that it has to be for-profit to be successful. It would be difficult to have it be not for profit.”

Images: B-cycle