Beverly Hills City Council recently gave its preliminary OK to city bike-share and authorized a feasibility study to explore the merit of a 50-bike system. We’re following Santa Monica’s lead here: it has tapped vendor CycleHop to implement a ‘smart bike’ system (as we previously reported). Should we piggyback on that contract, would this be a significant step forward for mobility in Beverly Hills? Or would it be only a tourist amenity for the ‘golden’ triangle?
The Beverly Hills system that got the preliminary OK from City Council warrants some optimism. Framed as a transportation measure rather than a recreation amenity, the bike-share system reflects the spirit of our city’s plans. We’ve made multimodal mobility a policy goal, and our plans (especially our Sustainable City Plan) encourage us to ride rather than drive in order to reduce both road congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. (Read the staff report to learn more about our incipient system.)
While we welcome City Hall’s support for cycling in whatever form, City Council is looking at a relatively small system – just 50 bicycles citywide – than can be considered a practical transportation option. Back in January, staff presented Council with three size options – 50, 100 or 150 bikes – but in the meantime the proposal was scaled back, and we’re now looking at only 50 share bikes. We’d term that a ’boutique’-sized system.
Scale matters when it comes to transportation convenience; this smaller rollout may hinder widespread embrace of bike-share as an everyday option for residents, workers and visitors. But it’s early days yet. Council has yet to discuss (much less decide) key program aspects such as bike placement.
On placement, a small system will likely be concentrated in the business triangle with an emphasis more on tourism than on overall transportation needs. For example, a boutique-type system just for the business triangle likely won’t reach travelers outside of the central business district in the city’s several other commercial areas.
Moreover, an inter-operable bike-share system that operates across city boundaries could reduce solo-occupancy vehicle travel between Beverly Hills (accomplishing our policy objective of reducing congestion) but wouldn’t make much of an impact if share bikes are not racked outside of the triangle. That wouldn’t be ‘citywide’ system, now would it? Nailing down these details will await the feasibility study (already underway).
On the funding side, corporate sponsorship is expected to complement user fees to support system operations. But what will corporate sponsorship look like? And how much of operations will it cover? That’s not been discussed in substance. The Citybike system in New York was referenced as a model for its ‘branded’ bikes, but Council also expressed concern that we should not be bound by promotional arrangements made by neighboring cities. That might be a complicating factor as we sign onto the existing contract’s terms.
Nevertheless, every member of City Council expressed support for the bike-share idea albeit with caveats as to how it would work in practice (like the sponsorship issue for example). Let’s look at the proposal in a little more detail.
The Beginning of a Regional Bike-Share System?
Of course the advantage of rolling out regional bike-share is interoperability: borrowing a bike in one city and returning it in another makes bike-borrowing a practical inter-city mobility option. Uniform hardware and software makes it possible by eliminating a ‘Balkanized’ situation where small cities each run its own independent system.
Santa Monica is expected to be just the first locality to roll out bike-share on the Westside. West Hollywood appears close to signing a deal too, and both Culver City and Beverly Hills are considering the CycleHop system.
The Westside regional system idea emerged in the Westside Cities Council of Governments (COG) under then-Chair (and Santa Monica Mayor) Richard Bloom. With strong support from COG reps Pam O’Connor and Kevin McKeown (former Santa Monica Mayor and current Mayor, respectively), it’s no surprise that Santa Monica has taken leadership on the initiative, and the Beverly Hills proposal piggybacks on a contract signed between City of Santa Monica and CycleHop – a vendor of ‘smart bike’ systems.
The so-called ‘smart bike’ technology rides with the bike rather than be anchored at the station. With each bike geo-tracked, users can simply locate the nearest available bike (via smartphone, say) without concern that the bike belongs to a neighboring city’s system. Pricing is also standardized across localities. And another practical advantage is that the complimentary low-tech racks are inexpensive to roll out and easy to reposition as necessary (unlike hardwired bike stations).
The regional approach brings some cost certainty too. Under the Santa Monica contract, the cost per bike is $1,500 with another thousand bucks for setup and a nominal $300 investment per rack (about the cost of a single ordinary sidewalk bike rack). The flat rate means that startup costs scale directly with system size, which is good for the budget folks.
Of course, the flat rate also means that there is no cost efficiencies to be had as the system scales up in size. There is no decrease in unit cost at the margin, for example, as illustrated in this cost matrix presented to Beverly Hills City Council.
The flat-rate ‘smart bike’ system benefits a smaller city like Beverly Hills in that it minimizes investment across a smaller system as there is no large fixed-cost element to capitalize. And with a phased rollout we can hedge our bet in case bike-share doesn’t catch on with the public. (Indeed Council discussion suggested some concern that the city wait to see how bike-share performs here and across the region before expanding it.) With a small rollout, too, we can measure early how much of the annual operating cost is recouped through sponsorship and fees (a question anticipated by the feasibility study).
But there are intangible costs to going too small. A smaller system will undermine the utility of implementing a system citywide. Anchoring a bike-share system in the triangle, for example, won’t help the outlying commercial districts – which were found by a city Small Business Task Force report to suffer what it called a ‘parking deficit.’ Where parking is a challenge (like in the Southeast and Western Gateway commercial areas) we could use bike-share to offset the parking demand that comes with foot traffic, but not if a smaller system never reaches these areas.
A small system by definition also will provide less capacity needed to cushion against spikes in demand. Every needy rider wants to find a bike when she needs one, and additional capacity makes it more likely to find an available ride. By just meeting (or possibly falling short of) demand, a small system with fewer available bikes may force travelers to turn to other travel options.
And finally, a small system is less conspicuous to the general public. In cities that have rolled out prominent systems and backed them with significant promotion, share bikes seem omnipresent – at least in the areas served by the system. It’s a reminder that there IS an option to taking the car. Visibility is crucial to success too.
We worry that a smaller system, perhaps one located only in the business triangle, will be viewed less as a transportation option than as a tourist amenity. Our concern was piqued when Mayor Bosse suggested that helmets be made available through the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which handles tourism promotion for the city. That made us wonder if she views bike-share in Beverly Hills as something primarily for tourists.
How Small is Too Small?
Studying the two larger size options would have allayed our concern about a too-small system. Consider that a 50-bike system puts just marginally more rides on the street than the number of sidewalk bike racks in place today citywide. Where are those racks when you need one? They are hard to find.
Is 50 bikes too small? Well, compare our commitment to that made by Santa Monica. On a per-capita basis, even the largest 150-bike option would still fall short of what’s on offer for Santa Monica. In fact, that option would have provided only three-fifths the number of share bikes per capita that Santa Monica will roll out in its program. (See the map at bottom for the breadth of that city’s system.)
Regardless of size, bike-share for Beverly Hills might make a significant contribution if it puts in the saddle tourists who are unfamiliar with the city and are maybe less-experienced with urban riding. It may sound crass to say, but inevitably some will crash, and one significant injury could force into the foreground the safety issue – and by extension the city’s long neglect for street safety generally. City Council didn’t touch on that in the bike-share discussion, but it will have to confront City Hall’s blunt indifference to bike safety sooner or later.