FORT SMITH — Residents facing transportation issues have a new alternative to help them get to where they need to go.
City officials, researchers from the University of Arkansas and other stakeholders came together at Martin Luther King Park on Thursday to celebrate the launch of the Ride 4 Smilies, a low-cost bike-share program.
The program is part of a pilot project with research components called Shared Micromobility For Affordable-Accessible Housing, Smilies. It is funded through a $1 million National Science Foundation grant awarded to the University of Arkansas’ College of Engineering, according to a city news release.
Suman Mitra, assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Arkansas and principal investigator of the project, said the project’s objectives are to make a scientific contribution toward research on shared micromobility and develop a sustainable model benefiting Fort Smith’s low-income community. The project’s investigators intend to make a recommendation to the city after it ends so it can be scaled up to other parts of the city to allow additional residents to benefit from it.
Reese Brewer, director of the Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization in Fort Smith and co-principal investigator of the project, said the north side of Fort Smith is the “focus area” of the pilot project. Planning and research done for it showed about 65% of people who live on the north side don’t have consistent access to a vehicle.
“They’re relying on bicycling, walking, transit, so we really want to understand how we can best serve them,” Brewer said.
A map Mitra previously provided that incorporated information from the U.S. census shows the annual median household income for large portions of Fort Smith north of Rogers Avenue is less than $40,000.
Mitra said eight bike stations have been installed throughout the city for the Ride 4 Smilies program. This includes seven on the north side and another on the more affluent south side, which can be divided further into four housing locations, two employment locations and two transit stop locations.
Mitra said those involved in the project determined the locations through research. This included getting feedback from community leaders via town hall meetings and workshops over the past six months.
Andre Good, Ward 2 city director, which comprises a majority of the city’s northern side, said Thursday he promoted the project to his constituents so they could provide their input for it. He believes the bike-share program will be helpful for young people in Ward 2 trying to start working and don’t have the money to purchase a vehicle, as well as employees at the larger companies there, such as OK Foods, who might not have day-to-day transportation.
“My very first job was at OK Foods, and I know from working there that when you’re working at a low wage and you have to provide for your family, transportation generally comes secondary,” Good said.
Jarred Rego, Ward 1 city director, likewise said the program will help residents get to employment opportunities, visit family, go shopping and any other reason they need to get from one point to another.
Each bike station has traditional bicycles and was intended to have electric bicycles as well, according to Mitra. However, the electric bicycles have yet to be delivered due to supply chain issues. It’s hoped they will arrive in the next “one or two months.”
Residents can access the bicycles by downloading a smartphone app called Movatic and creating an account, according to the news release. They can then scan the quick response code on one of the bikes to unlock it from the station and use it to get to their intended destination before returning it, although Mitra said this can be done at any of the stations.
The project is designed so the first hour of using the bicycles is free, according to Mitra. Users have to pay 50 cents for every half-hour interval afterward. The investigators of the project will test different pricing mechanisms and other aspects at various points starting June 15.
Those involved are in the process of developing a means for people who don’t have a smartphone, credit card or bank account to use the program, Mitra said. Input about the project will be secured from the community on a regular basis with the help of the city and the Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Mitra said the pilot project is set to end in October, although he intends too apply for a no-cost extension from the National Science Foundation to keep it going until March.
Aside from Mitra and Brewer, other co-principal investigators for this project include Sarah Hernandez, associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Arkansas; Rogelio Garcia Contreras, director of the Social Innovation Program at the university’s Walton College of Business; and Elizabeth McClain, chief wellness officer at Arkansas Colleges of Health Education in Fort Smith, according to the news release.
Tandem Mobility, a bike-share provider based in Northville, Mich., Fort Smith and bike shop Champion Cycling are also partners on the project, the news release states.
Ride 4 Smilies bike stations have been set up at the following locations in Fort Smith:
• OK Foods, 4201 Reed Lane
• North Pointe & Clayton Heights, 3408 N. 6th St.
• Martin Luther King Jr. Park, 1815 N. Greenwood Ave.
• Fort Smith Convention Center, 55 S. 7th St.
• 32nd Street at Grand Avenue
• North 58th Street at Kinkead Avenue
• Mercy Hospital, 7301 Rogers Ave.
• Chad Colley Boulevard
Source: Suman Mitra, assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Arkansas