By Matthew K. Roy
SALEM — Close on the heels of Boston, Salem is poised to launch its own bike-sharing program that will give residents, visitors and students a free alternative to automobiles.
"We're excited about it," Mayor Kim Driscoll said. "This is another step toward a greener Salem and another way people can get around in and enjoy the city."
Salem is tapping $30,000 in state Green Communities grant money to make up to 30 bikes available starting next month at two storage hubs, one near the Hawthorne Hotel, the other at Salem State University.
Bike sharing is viewed as an environmentally friendly way to reduce car traffic. Programs like the one started last month in Boston are in place in Washington, D.C.; Montreal; London; and Melbourne, Australia.
What separates Salem from those operations, besides the smaller scale of its sharing system, is that the city will not charge riders for the temporary use of a bike and helmet.
"It's free because we want to encourage people to use it," Driscoll said.
Those who choose to will likely have to provide identification, a license or a credit card, to get on a bike. Downtown, the Hawthorne Hotel has agreed to manage bike distribution.
At Salem State, a rack with 10 bikes will be at the university's central campus on Loring Avenue.
Any one of the school's 7,700 undergraduate students and 2,400 graduate students will have access to a bike. To ride, a student will need to present a university ID to campus police to receive a key to a bike lock. When done using a bike, the student will have to return it and the key, according to Corey Cronin, a university spokesperson.
The university is hoping to make the bikes available by Sept. 7, the first day of classes.
"One of the reasons students choose to attend Salem State is because of our location in a city," Cronin said. "We're trying to make it easier for them to get around by providing another option to get downtown."
Giving students another way downtown will benefit the businesses they patronize, said Dan Shuman, owner of Salem Cycle on Washington Street.
Shuman's shop is supplying the three-speed bikes, which were designed by Shuman and manufacturer KHS Bicycles. Salem Cycle will also do the required maintenance.
"It's going to let people ride a bike who otherwise would not be able to afford one," said Shuman, who is also chairman of Salem's Bike Path Committee.
The program is another boost to Salem's cycling credentials. The city this summer finished installing an on-street bike lane that goes from Marblehead to Winter Island. Since 2006, Salem has added an off-road bike path next to the Bridge Street bypass road, extended a Marblehead path a half-mile from Lafayette Street to Canal Street, and put 54 bike racks downtown.
The city is also in the process of planning a 1.5-mile extension of its bike path, from Canal Street (near Gardner Mattress) to downtown. The project will connect downtown Salem to downtown Marblehead with an entirely off-road path.
Driscoll called Salem a "great walking city," but there are some locations, the Willows, for example, that are just a little out of walking range. The bike-sharing system will give people another way to get there.
In Boston, the New Balance Hubway bike share features "swipe card" payment and costs $5 per day, with trips that are 30 minutes or less offered for free. An annual membership is $85. It will eventually have 61 stations and more than 600 bikes around the city.
Salem is starting small, but if the interest is there, Driscoll said, the city will find a way to expand the program.
"It would be a good problem to have," she said.