Bike Share for Beverly Hills?

Santa Monice bike-share system promoIn study session this week, City Council deferred to February a discussion about our city’s possible participation in a regional Westside bikeshare program. (Ours would piggyback on the coming Santa Monica system.) It’s very early for a substantive discussion about our participation, but that the question even comes up might herald a new approach to multimodal mobility for Beverly Hills. With new(ish) bike lanes on Burton and Crescent and Mayor Bosse strongly behind a bike-friendly city, are we turning the page on our auto-centric past?

City of Santa Monica will be first out-of-the-gate with a LA-area bike-share system. With grant funding already in hand, the city gave the nod back in November to what could be a $10.4 million system of 500 ‘smart bikes’ and 1,000 racks. First in line, the city might well bring along in its wake other localities (like Beverly Hills). Santa Monica’s commitment to multimodal mobility reaches back more than a decade to the city’s sustainability initiative.

But it finds full expression in the city’s innovative Land Use and Circulation Element. That update to Santa Monica’s General Plan in 2010 envisions no-net-increase in car trips as the city develops. And to meet that (relatively) ambitious goal, the city has doubled-down on bicycle lanes of literally every conceivable stripe and installed innumerable bike racks citywide. A downtown ‘bikestation’ opened in 2011.

A Westside Regional System?

The prospect of a regional Westside system emerged from  the Council of Governments (COG) in 2012. The member-city organization meets every other month to exchange information and tackle regional problems (so it says). But mobility hasn’t been much on the agenda at the COG; indeed the substantive policy discussion was less the focus than the free lunch. (Join the COG for its next one January 22nd at noon in West Hollywood.)

Mobility was ushered back on the COG agenda under then-Chair Richard Bloom,* Mayor of Santa Monica. Under the COG umbrella, member cities collaborated on the development of a proposal for a shared system; Santa Monica’s issued a request-for-proposals to get the first city system off the ground. (While Bloom put a fire under the COG,  Santa Monica councilmember and present-day mayor Kevin McKeown co-moved local authorization for the city’s bike-share program.)

The COG effort predates Metro’s current proposal, and it’s very different. Metro would tie bike-share into its transit system by anchoring bike hubs at major transit stations and (one day) allowing the bike borrower to use the agency’s TAP card to authorize the transaction. The Metro system would not rely on sponsorship but instead envisions a agency-city cost split (35% for Metro, 65% local). Rollout is limited to Downtown Los Angeles at present.

The Metro’s bike-share system was just approved by the board but won’t go live until 2016. Most important, Metro reserves the right to pull the plug on what it calls a ‘pilot’ program, which is none-too-reassuring to any city that might want to buy into it.

So a Westside system makes sense because the region has an interest in moving congestion-causing local car trips to other travel modes. And bike-sharing is a regional mobility solution. More, regional interoperability maximizes utility. Imagine even traveling from Beverly Hills to West Hollywood by bike-share without a single, interconnected system. Where would you drop off the Beverly Hills bike?

Santa Monica Takes the First Step

Santa Monice bike-share system promoSanta Monica in November committed $5.6 million for a 500-bike system, which is the first phase of what is anticipated to be a $10.4 million 1,000-bike program (if all goes according to plan).  The city calls this system “a model for the region.”

Cost per bike under the Santa Monica contract is $2,190 and each rack will cost another $300. That’s regardless of quantity: there is no economy of scale in purchasing hardware. The city would capitalize and own it. But the city contracted with a private operator, CycleHop, for an initial 8-year operations period. (See the Santa Monica staff report for more detail on costs, contract bidding and vendor selection as well as proposed rate structure and more.)

The system will be funded by a combination of general fund money, grants, sponsorship and user fees. Getting the ball rolling are grants from Metro ($1.5M) and AQMD ($360k) to which the city will add $361k in already-budgeted capital improvement funds. So the city has already stepped up with a capital funding commitment!

Then there is the in-kind match, which is grant-speak for, We’re giving you the money; what are you throwing into the pot? Santa Monica will provide at least one full-time staff position to run the system. That’s intriguing: will Beverly Hills do that too? Santa Monica has the staff and experience to run a bike program while Beverly Hills does not.

Besides grants and city money, Santa Monica expects corporate sponsorship to provide $250k-500k annually. User fees should kick in a whopping 85% of operations, the city says. The user fees as broken out in city’s projections:

Santa Monica bikeshare costs chart

Will riders pay $2 for every 20 minutes or pony up $15 to $25 per month to borrow a bike? That’s an unknown. The current cost of a Metro trip is $1.75. And it will take you from Santa Monica to Sierra Madre.

Sobi-smart-systemAs for technology, Santa Monica will use a ‘smart bike’ system (rather than ‘smart-racks’) as the borrowing technology travels with the bike rather than be integrated into a bike hub or kiosk. Santa Monica’s contractor CycleHop will use NYC’s Social Bicycles (SoBi) for the ‘smart bike.’ According to the  staff report:

…each bike is capable of accepting payments and releasing the bike-locking mechanism independently via a mobile, web and administrative software that interacts with the smart-bike hardware… Once registered, users can initiate rentals by walking up to any bicycle. – Staff report.

Where a hub-kiosk approach might be practical in high-density and high-demand neighborhoods, low-density cities like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills make hubs less practical. (Hubs/kiosks power bike-share systems in New York, London, Chicago, Boston, and Washington.) “Without need for a kiosk, smaller stations, consisting of as few as four racks, are feasible,” the staff report says. That suggests a benefit could be the rapid reallocation of racks according to demand. The ‘smart bike’ system’s integration with smartphone apps might actually recommend it to Beverly Hills, which is fancied as a ‘smart city’ with an app of our own.

Beverly Hills

Three aspects of the Santa Monica’s proposed ‘regional model’ suggest some questions for Beverly Hills City Council. Let’s look at start-up costs, operating costs and funding, and management of the system.

Start-up costs. First-year implementation costs for equipment, installation, and operation ranges from $327k (50 bikes) to nearly $1m (150 bikes), according to the staff report. (The figures include a 20% padding for contingencies.) Operating costs would range between $110k and $329k “less offset from user fees.” These three size tiers will be presented to City Council in February:

Bevery Hills bikeshare costs chartYou can see here that the system’s flat cost-per-bike means that start-up cost scales directly with the number of bikes rolled out. (The only significant cost to be amortized across the system under this proposal is the two ‘solar kiosks.’) Flat costs could benefit a smaller city like Beverly Hills. On the other hand, as a system grows it realizes no per-unit cost efficiencies. Here the per-bike cost declines very modestly with a bump-up in system size. Doubling units from 50 to 100 bikes realizes a 4.5% decrease, for example, while tripling the size of the smallest system to 150 units realizes only a 6% per-unit decline in costs.

Without economy-of-scale as incentive, would a smaller city like Beverly Hills choose to roll out a ’boutique’ system with only a few bikes in a handful of central locations? That would undermine the utility of bike-share as everyday transportation, of course, because the practical mobility option must be available and accessible wherever people need it. As proposed for evaluation, however, the larger system (150 bikes) on a per-capita basis works out to only 3/5 the size of the Santa Monica system. Can we afford anything smaller?

And then there’s the funding. Where will it come from? Per the staff report, only $150k in Air Quality Management District funds are now available for the capital costs; no other available grant funding is identified. Staff will look for more grant support in a coming (outsourced) feasibility study.

With only $150k in hand, Council will have to dip into the general fund in the next capital improvement program. So let’s look at City Council-identified priorities for this fiscal year (July through June).

Every fall the city sets priorities. In the fall of 2013 City Council chose to maintain “enhancements to bike mobility” as a ‘B’ level priority (per the priorities staff report). And this past fall, Council again directed that bike mobility continue to be a ‘B’ priority:

Priorities FY 2014-15-bike excerpt But a ‘B’ priority either reflects long term objectives (beyond a single fiscal year cycle) or identifies initiatives that would be completed “with the same staff resources after current ‘A’ priorities are completed.” This is very different than an ‘A’ priority, which is funded. Keep in mind that an update to our citywide bike plan (1977) has languished for years despite being a ‘B’ priority. And what does this year’s capital improvements budget say about bike mobility programs? We’d like to know, but inexplicably the city doesn’t post the most recent budget on the hard-to-find financial documents webpage.

Operating costs and funding. Aside from year one costs, the staff report is vague about ongoing support beyond estimating $109k for the smallest, 5-bike system. User fees are mentioned – and are estimated to recapture 30% of operating expenses – but that’s a big unknown. Santa Monica is proposing relatively high fees to complement expected advertising revenues. Whether Beverly Hills can sustain elevated fees or even begin to recapture costs with user fees (especially if we roll out a smaller boutique system) is an open question.

But experience from other cities shows user fees wouldn’t cover operations and, further, other systems have rejiggered fees once ridership numbers came in under projections. (As a transportation option, bike-share isn’t unique in this regard: the farebox hardly covers any transportation capital investments whether road, rail or bus.)

What about sponsorship of operations? Would city consider branding our system for a corporate partner? Will our municipal code even allow that kind of branding in the right-of-way? (That’s been an impediment to bike-share systems in other cities.) This staff report is light on specifics: there is no reference to other systems that are currently run by CycleHop, so we don’t see how such systems are supported. And there is zero data pulled from other cities to inform a Council discussion about user fees. The staff report defers much of this to “further study.”

Last there is the issue of management. The system envisioned by Santa Monica (and structured with participation from COG member cities) identifies CycleHop as the long-term private operator. But Santa Monica will devote a full-time equivalent (FTE) employee to manage the city’s end and add an additional .5 FTE for undefined ‘administration.’ Beverly Hills, however, identifies only a half-FTE for those jobs. Is that realistic?

Looked at another way, Santa Monica already has transportation staff knowledgeable about these issues, and we need that level of staff support too. We’d propose the city to hire a full-time equivalent multimodal mobility coordinator with half time devoted to bike-share management if implemented and the other half to mobility-related tasks that today fall through the cracks. Like that long-awaited bicycle master plan update, for example. Or the need to incorporate mobility concerns into our land use policies. We also need to revisit the municipal code to eliminate antiquated or inappropriate regulations that affect riders. That should keep a full-time coordinator busy.

City Council’s February Discussion: What to Expect?

Without much hard data on the table, City Council’s discussion about this bike-share system will likely suggest more about our mobility concerns generally than reflect concerns about this bike-share program specifically. A positive discussion would go some way toward walking-back some of the more parochial Council comments during consideration of Santa Monica Boulevard bicycle lanes. It might even build on the relatively optimistic debate about lanes this past January, when some members of Council seemed to keep the option open. Heck, even this clause when included in a Beverly Hills document warrants some optimism: “As bikeshare is a form of transit….”

On the other hand, our plans say the right things about the role of multimodal mobility in reducing congestion and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but officials in the past seemed loathe to acknowledge them though they are stated city policy goals. Bike-share might pull into the foreground questions such as: Do we see ourselves as part of the Westside congestion problem? Are are we prepared to recognize that we have obligations to the region to ameliorate it? A positive bike-share discussion could be a significant step forward.

And last, in Beverly Hills City Hall, the tendency is to frame initiatives as marketing or branding opportunities. For councilmembers looking to rationalize any system, the smaller boutique system when presented as a hospitality service (for tourists) might overcome their hesitation. We can imagine that program run not out of Community Development/Transportation but rather the Convention and Visitors Bureau – and that would be a mistake. We’ll know more when we hear councilmembers talk generally about bike-share for Beverly Hills.

We don’t expect much in the way of concrete commitment from City Council though. It’s  early in the process and there’s too little hard data provided to Council on which to make any definitive decision. Besides, the multiple unknowns present many opportunities for the skeptical councilmember to simply refer it on for “further study” if not shut it down. And perhaps one or more councilmembers might balk at accepting the contract as presented; not because they’re not workable, but because Council didn’t have a say in fashioning it.

Keep in mind that this proposal hasn’t even been presented to the Traffic and Parking Commission, which as a courtesy would be given an opportunity to advise Council. (The commission does have a dormant ad hoc bike plan update committee.) And of course City Council could simply wait to see how Santa Monica fares. As the staff report says, “staff will benefit from Santa Monica’s implementation process and lessons learned from their bikeshare model during planning, start up and actual operations.” That alone suggests a long and winding path for bringing bike-share to Beverly Hills.

Update: Mayor Lilli Bosse appears to be a bike-share fan!

bosse bike-share tweet*As our Assemblyman, Richard Bloom has backed bicycle lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills throughout our city’s boulevard reconstruction discussion. He even dispatched a district representative to address our Blue Ribbon Committee and City Council. Which begs a question: given Santa Monica’s lead on multimodal mobility, why is that municipality doing more for alternative mobility policymaking here than our own Beverly Hills officials?

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