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As bikeshare struggles elsewhere, promoters hope Youngstown, Ohio, can make it work

YoGo Bikeshare team poses in front of their electric bike

Ronnell Elkins, president of YoGo Bikeshare, says his ambitions are more about community development than pulling in big profits.

Ronnell Elkins, far right, along with Kent Wallace and Paris Wallace pose with a YoGo electric bike in Youngstown, Ohio. Credit: James Higgs III / used with permission

As an economically struggling Midwestern city of approximately 60,000, Youngstown, Ohio, doesn’t exactly fit the prototype for a micro-mobility hotspot. 

But after a soft launch of four docking stations near Youngstown State University last fall, YoGo Bikeshare is set for a ribbon cutting in downtown Youngstown on March 23, boasting 30 e-bikes and 45 docking stations in various locations in and around downtown, just south of the university. 

And while many big-name players in the bikeshare space traditionally don’t view mid-sized cities like Youngstown as viable markets, YoGo Bikeshare president and co-founder Ronnell Elkins is determined to ensure that this Black-owned, family-run and community-oriented operation succeeds. 

As a privately owned business, YoGo Bikeshare received funding from Valley Economic Development Partners to purchase bicycles and related equipment needed to run the bikeshare operation. Elkins and company also won $5,000 in seed funding through audience votes during a Youngstown Business Incubator event in 2022. 

Participating in the incubator also facilitated the process of securing an insurer for the operation, along with a $174,000 loan to supplement the $5,000 prize and out-of-pocket investments. Obtaining local support and buy-in is essential to the bikeshare’s success, along with securing ongoing sufficient funding to establish and maintain the operation, Elkins said.

“When we talk about fostering a healthy community, we’re going to rely on those same people to help us keep this thing going and keep it viable,” Elkins said. “It’s about scale. We know how expensive it is to run a bike[share] operation. We’re kind of an anomaly in this field because of the way we’re doing it from a business structure. So, on our business plan, we see that it can be profitable if you scale it right. And our margins may not be big as with Lyft and Bird and Lime, but it’s going to be enough to sustain the business.” 

But while he recognizes generating a reasonable return on investment is essential, profit has not been the overriding motivator for Elkins.

“We wanted to create an ecosystem for rideshare within our city because we understood the lay of the land. We are more equipped to provide real insight for what’s important to our people than some outsider looking at our city merely as a profit model,” Elkins said. “We weren’t coming in trying to make this about profit, but more about community engagement and fostering a healthy community. We didn’t have those types of motives.”

The number of bikes and docking stations at each location will vary, but the general rule of thumb is to provide one and a half open docking stations per bike, to allow docking bikes from alternate locations, according to Elkins.

Riders can purchase annual memberships or daily passes, and can reserve bikes at bike station kiosks or via a smartphone app. 

When mapping out docking stations, Elkins and his crew used a 2019 study of bikeshare viability commissioned by the city as a point of reference before beginning their own research. 

YoGo Bikeshare also obtained key approval from the city, which had turned away other proposals, in no small part because YoGo Bikeshare opted for an all e-bike fleet secured at fixed docking stations.

“It was a combination of the major players not thinking Youngstown was profitable, and the government of the city not wanting to have scooters and bikes littered everywhere,” as has happened in cities like Dallas and Chicago, Elkins said.

“There was some pushback early on because it was a combination of those different city organizations wondering why theirs didn’t go through versus ours and you know, who are we? ‘Who are these Black guys?,’ for a lack of better word. ‘Who are these people coming in, being able to do this, and why weren’t we accepted?’” Elkins said. 

Going all-in on e-bikes was always the plan, given the trend in the bikeshare space toward e-bikes. The hilly terrain of the region also pushed YoGo to expand bike access to a broader cross-section of potential riders, Elkins said. 

“From a business mindset, we didn’t want to have to change out bikes within a year or two. And so, I just said, you know what? We’ll just invest the money now on e-bikes. 

“Because again not only do we see the trends in the industry, but also it’s a lot more inclusive in terms of the demographic. If you have any older riders that are looking to ride, Youngstown has quite a few hills. And the e-bikes will help assist them with the pedal assist to get up those hills without putting a strain on their joints,” Elkins said. 

Long-term viability is never far from Elkins’ mind. At the same time, YoGo Bikeshare is more than an entrepreneurial enterprise for Elkins.

“You have to keep the lights on … It does us no good to roll out a bikeshare, get all this attention, and it isn’t sustainable and it closes in two years or next year. It doesn’t do anyone any good. 

“We’re just going to be renting the bikes, but we’ve become embedded in political conversations. We’ve become embedded with the regional government in terms of how they’re trying to repopulate areas. We come up in the sector of transportation, we come up in a lot of different things. It’s not about the bikes, it’s about diversity, equity, inclusion. It’s about so much more than the bike itself. I didn’t realize that when we first started it, but as I, as we go along, it is, it’s bigger than the bike,” Elkins said.

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