Bike Sharing Comes to the Bay Area

bay area bike share logoSan Francisco launched its own bike share system last week. With only 35 stations located mostly in the commercial heart of the city, the initial rollout of Bay Area Bike Share is limited to 350 bicycles. But unlike cities that have implemented large systems (think NYC’s Citi Bike and Chicago’s Divvy), this one is regional and brings together SFMTA, the city’s transit agency, with other transport agency partners to reach down the peninsula through Silicon Valley to San Jose. Along the Caltrain route another 350 bicycles are sited near stations to connect riders with destinations by bike. Let’s take a look.

Bay Area Bike Share

Bay Area Bike Share takes a regional approach with a system that snakes from the City of San Francisco in the north southward along the Caltrain commuter line to San Jose. Backed by regional agencies including SFMTA, Caltrain, and authorities in San Mateo County and Santa Clara Valley, this new system (it debuted August 29th) is a modest first step to address significant demand.

Bay Area bike share stations SF mapThe network itself  It is a head-and-tail arrangement with fully half of the system anchored in San Francisco (see the map) and a service tail that stretches through the narrow peninsula south to San Jose. It is a spine that mirrors commuting patterns: the south peninsula cities have emerged as a major technology employment hub (Silicon Valley) but housing opportunities there are limited because it’s largely suburban. And it’s expensive.

The tech elite do like their non-motor mobility options, though, and every day many of these commuters bring their bikes. But that’s where efficiency tails off: it’s more efficient to devote limited coach space to bodies, rather than bicycles. Bike share becomes attractive because commuters can leave the bike at home. With this line feeding the silicon beast with commuters from both San Francisco and San Jose (bedroom communities for Silicon Valley), the expectation is that Bay Area Bike Share will allow one to leave the steel wheels at home.

That’s why Caltrain is behind it. But the Air Quality district is also interested because Silicon Valley firms add to road congestion with their own bespoke private bus networks. The more we can move those commuters to trains the better. With a bike share answer to the ‘last mile’ question, perhaps we’ll need fewer Google buses.

The Hardware

Bay Area Bike Share bikeFor those interested in iron, have a look at the system’s Bixi (aka Public Bike System Company) bicycles. They strike a note somewhere between masculine and feminine in both form and color. Not quite masculine (note the dipped top tube and rear wheel skirt protector) yet not quite feminine (the blue accents). As far as bike styles go, it’s intentionally androgynous. Nor is it particularly handsome. And that’s intentional too: Bay Area Bike Share doesn’t want to see these bikes simply roll away.

Bay riders will find 350 of the total 700 bicycles parked at 35 electronic kiosks in the city, with another 350 at kiosks down the peninsula.

Bay Area Bike Share kiosk
Photo: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious

This system is run by Alta Bicycle Share (a fork, if you will, of California’s hometown favorite mobility planning firm, Alta Planning). No surprise, the kiosks appear well-designed – though it’s difficult to find a good image of the screen.

The docking stations use RFID tracking to recognize a bicycle (required to identify the take and credit the return).

The role of Alta is most clearly apparent in the online materials for Bay Area Bike Share. There is a very good rider tips page which avoids most of the mistakes of cities’ bike safety pages, and there is also a comprehensive resource compendium of advocacy groups, bike shops, rental stations and all manner of helpful bike links. Even if you don’t use the system, bookmark the page.

Here’s a look at one of the stations from the Bay Area flickr page:

Bay-area-bikeshare-station-2The Cost

Bay area bikeshare stationWhat does all this goodness cost? Annual memberships run $88 with 3-day ringing up at a steep $22 and a one-day pass at $9. Members get a key, while pass-holders get a ‘ride code’ to unlock the bike. The first half-hour is free. To discourage joyriding, the first overtime starts at 31 minutes ($3 for that first additional half hour) and a wallet-stinging $7 for the next half-hour. Other cost caveats: the deposit is $101 (so make sure that’s available on your plastic) and the lost fee is $1,200. (But how could you lose it if you’re using it point-to-point anyway?)

But don’t gripe about the cost: somebody’s gotta pay for the $7 million phase-I rollout. (Phase II is promised within six months and will add another 300 bikes to the network.) The taxpayers, the agencies, and the Air District won’t expect to make any money on this scheme, though. Officials will be lucky to keep their skin if the forecast heavy demand materializes and the system can’t accommodate it. This ain’t SoCal!

The Regional Solution

Putting bike share under the control of a large, regional transit agency or agencies could be a recipe for disaster, or it could be a step forward. Disaster because a relatively small program like bike share can get lost in the behemoth bureaucracy of an agency or fall between the cracks of multiple agencies. Strategic vision can dissipate and maintenance can simply fall by the wayside in such an arrangement. For agencies used to literally making trains run on time, niggling problems that bedevil bike share systems (bike replacement, technical glitches) could be a detail too small to manage. And a bad first impression for bike share can be a death knell for a good idea.

On the other hand, regional transit agency is in a position to put bike sharing where we need it most and might represent a true integration of cycling and transit. For example, transit agencies necessarily take a high-altitude perspective on regional mobility. Multiple systems must be coordinated. With the proper vision, bike sharing can be rolled out strategically to ensure bicycles be accessible to the largest proportion of the public at the lowest cost.

Metro Station Bike Hubs mapOur own Metro, in fact, identifies region-wide mobility hubs (right).For these locations, bike sharing would be a natural extension of the public investment in transit and reflect the larger people-moving mission. Such opportunities are under-realized today in the Southland, however, as Metro’s measures to date have been limited to bike lockers or the occasional bike storage room that belies the facile claim of ‘transit-oriented development.’

The Santa Monica’s Bike Center though is a model facility of its type. It seizes the chance to truly integrate cycling into regional transit (it anticipates the Expo line’s arrival) and it also comports with that city’s sustainable multimodal mobility policy that seeks to hold new auto trips flat while encouraging ‘smart growth.’

There is another good reason for transit agencies to get in the bike share business: they control valuable real estate like rail stations. We want to get people to home, work or school via transit, so putting a bike station where we disembark can provide convenient ‘last mile’ transport to work or school.

Should Metro Run a Regional Bike Share System?

Bay Area Bike Share may not be the best model for a regional system in Southern California because the SFMTA’s Bart and the regional Caltrain are fairly limited systems compared to Metro. And in the Bay Area, people are seemingly bred to seek auto alternatives. But here the economies of scale (Metro goes everywhere) and potential big gains make it a worthwhile part of the Metro mission. If we can build tomorrow on the tiny base of today’s bike commuters, we’ll have a significant impact.

And then there’s the funding. In our region, Metro is the beneficiary of Measure R, the 2008 LA County-wide half-cent sales tax transportation funding mechanism approved by voters. Bike share is exactly the kind of transit-complimentary facility envisioned by the voters to get those would-be riders out from behind the wheel and into the saddle. Even better, Measure R provides a ready source of funds through 2039 that can be tapped.  This organization has both the money and the leverage to create a truly comprehensive system; not just bike share for Westside Cities or Downtown, but in Reseda, Pacoima and anywhere else Metro delivers services.

There is a bike share vacuum in the Southland today. Los Angeles has stumbled badly in getting its system up and running. Santa Monica is just taking the first steps, but it’s a small city on the periphery which can’t solve regional transportation challenges. And here in Beverly Hills our policymakers say they like the concept, but our transportation officials point lazily to the Westside COG’s the lead on a Westside solution. But that organization has been moribund for most of the last year and there’s no indication that bike-friendly facilities will be a priority with the COG anyway.

The Promise for Beverly Hills

Consider what Bike Share can do for us. We’ve heard a lot over the last several years about the western Gateway, but for all of the talk there has been no discussion (by city staff or project applicants) about how to address the mobility challenge there. We’ve been advocating for riders’ needs, though, pressing policymakers and the Planning Commission to ensure that multimodal mobility be afforded. It’s the ideal location for a bike station, we believe, and any development on the former railroad parcels there should dedicate space for a bike station. The city can require it.

Take for example the city’s eastern gateway at Doheny. This is what it could look like with a bike station planted on the spit of land left over after the Pacific Electric line stopped running (click to animate):

Santa Monica-Doheny bikestationThat land could serve riders with a bike station (in keeping with its original transportation purpose) and keep par with our neighbors, or it could be gobbled up by blacktop in our reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard in 2015 – an opportunity lost.

Transit agencies like Metro enjoy leverage that can induce a local council like ours to accept a bike station or even bike share kiosks near major bus lines by providing the funding. With Metro’s vision and bucks behind the rollout of a regional system, we will look forward to bike share kiosks in the business triangle where we need them; on South Beverly just blocks from a planned Metro station; and at our gateways.