Bye Bye to Beverly Hills Bike Share

Beverly Hills Bike Share is a thing no more now that city council has decided not to renew the contract. The last day of operation is July 31st. Thereafter vendor Cyclehop will remove the bikes and docking stations. This comes as no surprise given some concern about the magnitude of the system’s subsidy and the relatively few users. Indeed six years after council cut the ribbon, our shared-mobility experiment was attracting fewer riders than ever. Time to pull the plug.

From the statement posted to the ‘bicycles’ page (yes one exists!) on the city’s website:

Beverly Hills Bike Share has been a valued feature of Beverly Hill’s mobility system for the last four years. With the bike share equipment approaching the end of its useful life and a high subsidy per ride, the City is not renewing the current vendor contract and bike share operations will end on July 31, 2021. The City is exploring new opportunities to provide shared mobility in Beverly Hills.

Except that the city isn’t exploring shared-mobility. Shared-mobility devices were banned in July of 2018 and city hall has shown no interest in revisiting the prohibition.

Bike Share Backstory

Only one shared-mobility device was ever allowed in Beverly Hills and that was bike share. Initial discussions kicked-off in 2012 but the city didn’t sign-on until a ‘turnkey’ opportunity came along: City of Santa Monica’s $10.4 million contract with Cyclehop in 2014. The program put 500 bicycles and 75 docking stations on Santa Monica streets with the goal of reducing car trips in the business district.

Santa Monica bike share map 2014
City of Santa Monica hit the ground rolling with an ambitious bike share program in 2014.

Beverly Hills could piggy-back on the Santa Monica program without having to negotiate terms and price with bike share vendors. City of Santa Monica did it for us! For Beverly Hills it was nearly a ‘turnkey’ opportunity. We simply needed to scale the program up or down according to our needs.

Beverly Hills jumped on board with bike share in 2015 with a few hundred thousand dollars in grant money. But of course we didn’t scale-up the Santa Monica system; we scaled it way down. The Beverly Hills system ‘soft launched’ with only two hub stations. Even for a city our size it was underwhelming.

Beverly Hills bike share soft launch map 2016
Beverly Hills soft-launched our bike share system with only two station hubs. It didn’t garner much user attention.

The soft launch in 2016 didn’t generate much buzz because the limited system made it difficult to find a share bike where you needed one and a challenge to drop it off near the destination. Subsequently the bike share formally launched in the spring of 2016 with 50 bikes and six station hubs. But additional locations were put on hold pending discussion about location. Eventually there were ten station hubs in total.

Beverly Hills bike share system map 2017

Bikeshare ribbon cutting 2016
Councilmembers Julian Gold, Nancy Krasne, John Mirisch and Lili Bosse cut the ribbon on opening day of the Beverly Hills Bike Share program.

City council cut the ribbon on a hot June day in 2016.  The usual dog-and-pony show was complete with policymaker speeches under a tent packed with city hall officials and was captured by the city’s in-house media team.

The main event: seeing Beverly Hills councilmembers in their blue blazers gamely lap the Civic Center block on brand-new share bikes!

After the ribbon-cutting the system evolved slowly. There were numerous commission meetings about where to locate station hubs and some pushback from local businesses. Ultimately a system that could have included 207 bikes across 30 station hubs (as proposed by a 2014 feasibility study) never reached a fraction of that scale. Today the system numbers 50 bikes 10 station hubs…just one-tenth the size of the Santa Monica system. On the bright side, vendor Cyclehop did a great job with the apps and stations and the website.

Declining Interest

Interest in the system peaked at two points according to bike share trip data: once after the ribbon-cutting and again during the pandemic summer three years later. In between (and afterward) there has been a slow and steady decline.

The declining interest in the system is told through two metrics: number of users and frequency of use. Membership, for example, is a reflection of sustainable support for the system. It produces revenue and it suggests frequent use. Our system offered annual or monthly memberships (or a pay-as-you-go option).

Beverly Hills bike share current ratesBike share memberships didn’t sell very well so the city coined a metric to count users: those who have taken at least one ride during some a time period. The city calls them ‘active members.’

‘Active members’ is a flawed metric though. In the months after the 2016 ribbon-cutting they numbered 500. These users took at least one ride, the city says. That number increased to 675 and a year later the city could count no fewer than 1,600 ‘active members.’ That data point was useful when city staff wanted to provide city council with an optimistic year-one assessment (in 2017) but it really over-emphasized interest in the system.

Today there is a very little interest in the system even by that flawed metric. In the first five months of 2012, for example, there were only 213 active members and collectively they took 120 rides, on average, each month. Either nearly half of those active members weren’t very active in any given month; or some used the system regularly but the balance of them never did. We should more accurately call these ‘mostly inactive users.’

According to that recent data there was only one — one! — registered member during the January to May 2021 period. The 99% balance were pay-as-you-go and most were visitors: only 1-in–8 of the pay-as-you-go users in 2021 lived in the city.

Bike share users on South Beverly Drive
A rare species spotted in the wild: users enjoying themselves on a Beverly Hills share bike!

Trip count does provides a precise use metric. Systemwide use peaked in 2017 with 3,786 trips annually. But then it declined steadily before bumping-up one last time in 2020 during the early months of the pandemic shutdown. But that spike was transitory: the total number of trips in 2020 was down 30% from the 2017 peak.

Beverly Hills bike share trips chart FY2017-21
The chart depicts trips originating from a Beverly Hills location. Chart by Better Bike.

Trip count may be an accurate measure of system use, but the more relevant gauge of overall interest in bike share as a mobility solution is idle time. City staff identified a useful metric for idleness: the average number of trips per bike per day. “A 1.0 rate means that all the active bikes were used at least once per day during the specified time period,” said the 2017 year-one program assessment.

The average number of trips per bike per day was low. During a one year period preceding the year-one program report the rate was .29. That’s less than one trip per day per bike. Looked at another way, the .29 average trips per bike per day indicated that for each day that a typical share bike makes one trip there will be at least two additional days where it makes no trip at all.

While that rate was on par with West Hollywood’s new system, it was much, much lower than the 1.79 average number of trips per bike per day for the much more extensive Santa Monica system. Scale matters!

Comparative bike share use tableWhen the system is idle it becomes more difficult to cover the $109,000 cost of operating bike share in Beverly Hills each year. The fewer the rides, the greater the subsidy. Each day a share bike is idle — i.e., not carrying a revenue-producing user — the more the public must cough up to cover the cost of operation. In Beverly Hills two out of three days the typical share bike brought in zero revenue.

Deal-Breakers: 80% Subsidy + More

Beverly Hills bike share old equipment
The dim displays on these old ‘smart’ bike units made it frustrating indeed to unlock a bike.

The writing was on the wall for Beverly Hills bike share by the time the Traffic & Parking Commission was asked to weigh in on whether to extend the Cyclehop bike share agreement or allow it to expire. Commissioners were presented with data showing that usage was at an all-time low and told that the ‘smart bike’ equipment needs an upgrade.

There there was the magnitude of the public subsidy. The cost of providing the bike share service is much greater than user revenue so public money is needed to plug the hole. That money comes from AQMD and Metro grants and it amounts to 81% of annual operating cost. Most years the subsidy was $90,000 which averages to about $33 per bike share trip.

The per-ride subsidy figure catches a policymaker’s eye. Two years ago Councilmember Julian Gold questioned the prudence of subsidizing bike share at such a high per-ride cost and voted against renewing the agreement. This time it was Traffic & Parking Commissioner Ron Shalowitz who called-out the opportunity cost of subsidizing a system people weren’t using. He quipped, “We could give out gift cards for Uber rides at less than the cost of the $30 subsidy.”

The per-ride subsidy does suggest the inefficiency of bike share. But it may be more prudent to focus on the systemwide subsidy. The $90,000 that plugs the operating deficit might be workable if bike share provided a popular solution to a mobility problem or even encouraged people to use their own bike for a local trip.

But it is not clear that bike share encouraged bicycling in general much less presented a compelling solution. Why continue it? Asked Traffic & Parking commissioner David Seidel, “Spending $100,000 on something so heavily subsidized — to what end?”

Last year the annual bike share system subsidy increased to 92% of operating cost to cover the free bike share that city council provided during the pandemic. Commissioner Seidel concluded, “Let’s cut our losses.”

Subsidy wasn’t the only concern of commissioners; safety was a problem too. “We put the cart before the horse — we rolled out a bike share when there was no place to ride,” said Traffic & Parking Vice-Chair Sharon Ignarro. “I want to see us spend our Measure R funds on a quick-build bike network so that we have a place for people to ride.”

Commissioner David Seidel agreed. “Santa Monica has been out front. However many stations they had, every single one of them was no further than a half-block from a dedicated bike lane,” he said. “Our system is the opposite: the bike stations are nowhere near a dedicated bike lane because we don’t have many.”

Three of four commissioners then agreed that it was time to let the system go. Commissioner Jay Solnit piled on. “It was a wonderful idea but we should let this expire.”

Chair Nooshin Meshkati thought differently. “I don’t think the bike share was so unsuccessful — the culture is hard to change,” she said. Nooshin called out the prevailing “mentality” in the city — and city hall — that remains anchored in a bygone fossil-fuel era. “It is hard for us to wrap our heads around the concept of needing other modes of transportation.”

She supported extending the agreement for six months for one practical reason: “If we put an end to it then it will take longer to kick-start something new.” In the end the commission agreed that it was time to look to something new. “We need to look at all forms of mobility and we need it in place by the time Metro opens,” said Vice-Chair Ignarro.

City council was already predisposed to end the bike share program. Very likely it tossed the question to the Traffic & Parking Commission to get a little political cover. With the commission’s concurrence now it’s done done.

Next Steps

Beverly Hills is the proverbial last man standing on the Westside when it comes to bike share, according to a recent bike share staff report.

City of Santa Monica retired their bike share program in November 2020 due to financial constraints caused by COVID–19. UCLA discontinued their bike share program in June 2020 due to budget cuts and low performance, and the City of West Hollywood discontinued their WeHo Pedals bike share program in August 2019 due to low performance. — Staff report June 3, 2021

Municipalities are searching for more expansive shared-mobility solution. The Santa Monica pilot program again leads the Westside in thinking big: four vendors provide a variety of devices (from e-bikes to hybrid scooters) at a variety of price points. Read about the pilot program and consider this comparison of devices and prices. We will all learn from the city’s experience.

There is no indication that such a move by Beverly Hills is on the horizon. Indeed we still ban all shared-mobility devices!

My Take

It was time for Beverly Hills bike share to go because it had outlived its usefulness both in concept and implementation.

Beverly Hills bike share brandingThe embrace of bike share in Beverly Hills was meant to signal that the city was interested in multimodal mobility. But that was really a feint. Beverly Hills was not ready to commit. Forget supporting infrastructure like dedicated lanes and safety signage; it was expedient to simply cut a check and brand the bikes and then call it a win.

On implementation we fell down too. The system never scaled-up sufficiently to make bike share a practical alternative. At full build-out our system numbered only 100 bikes and ten station hubs. Ubiquity is crucial when it comes to shared mobility! Our limited-size system didn’t provide a share bike where we needed one; and when concluding a trip inevitably there wasn’t a station nearby.

Scale matters and Santa Monica rolled out a much more comprehensive system. Unsurprisingly the typical share bike in Santa Monica was used more than six times as frequently as a Beverly Hills bike. That disparity can’t be about price because they were part of the same system! Our system didn’t have the necessary scale — and we didn’t have the infrastructure.

Even on rollout the system failed to impress. The ‘soft launch’ was too soft — just two station hubs and a handful of bikes — and the subsequent formal rollout got tangled in process (it took too long to agree on where to put station hubs).  Process hangups got in the way of the message and system use flagged.

Indeed the number of bike share trips began to trend downward shortly after the ribbon was cut. The number of users declined too. With too few residents interested we could never meet the bike share objective to shift local motor trips to other modes.

And then there’s the subsidy. In my view the subsidy is the least of the problem. We know that transportation subsidies can work and they can be politically defended. Mass transit subsidies, for example, cover operating deficits in nearly every instance because fare box revenue never covers the cost of providing services at scale.

Likewise, federal and state legislators have agreed to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize the purchase of electric vehicles (to the tune of nearly ten thousand bucks each) which seems like a giveaway to buyers who would most likely have purchased the car anyway. The subsidy could have been a non-issue if the system was popular.

Failure Foretold

Looking back, the city council ribbon-cutting was a perfect metaphor for our system’s rollout and ultimate demise. The ribbon was cut at the Civic Center station hub, which was located at South Santa Monica at Crescent. That’s great for a presser; city hall makes for an appropriate backdrop. But it is terrible for safety!

South Santa Monica does not have a dedicated bicycle lane and owing to speeding motor traffic and a narrow stretch of corridor it is a hazardous place to ride. So as we watched councilmembers uncertainly negotiate their trip back to the south side of city hall along a perilous stretch we might have anticipated the bike share challenge to come.

Incidentally, no city press release heralded the demise of bike share in Beverly Hills…which is odd for a city that communicates with stakeholders primarily through city hall press releases. Maybe it’s just as well: we can wind-down the system quietly and in any case most share bikes are gone already!

Bike share find-a-bike map
Days before agreement expiration only the city hall station hub shows the availability of share bikes.

What about those bikes, anyway? Beverly Hills still owns 50 of them. It’s difficult to imagine we have a purpose for them when we couldn’t give-away bike share service for free. Here’s one for the scrapbook….

Councilmembers Julian Gold, Nancy Krasne, Lili Bosse and John Mirisch enjoy a lighthearted moment at the opening day celebration for Beverly Hills Bike Share
Councilmembers Julian Gold, Nancy Krasne, Lili Bosse and John Mirisch enjoy a lighthearted moment at the opening day celebration for Beverly Hills Bike Share