With outside grants set to expire, the cost of the Bike Share self-service bicycle-rental program will have to be shouldered by Mountain View if it continues. But in reviewing the system's numbers last Tuesday night, City Council members voiced serious concerns, especially after they learned the system's underwhelming ridership meant the city would essentially be spending $19.50 for each bike trip.
Launched in Mountain View about three years ago, Bike Share offers an easy-to-use system renting out bicycles to ride between the seven stations scattered throughout town. Riders can check out a loaner bike at a cost of a $88 yearlong membership or a $9 one-day pass.
More than 840,000 bike trips have been logged in the system since it first debuted in the Bay Area in 2013, but the whopping majority has been in San Francisco. Other Bay Area cities that signed up for the program saw disappointing participation numbers. On an average day, only about one-third of Mountain View's Bike Share fleet are rented out for a single ride. It's even worse in Redwood City, where fewer than one in 10 bikes are ridden each day.
Exactly why the program failed to draw more riders is unknown, but city officials offered some possibilities. With only seven docking stations within city limits, riders have limited options for where they could travel. In Mountain View, many commuters at the city's largest tech firms likely had little reason to pay for a bike rental when their companies provide complimentary bicycles to ride around town -- think of the ubiquitous Google bikes. In total, Mountain View has 350 annual Bike Share members.
In its short history, the Bay Area Bike Share program has already had a bumpy ride. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District originally started the service as a $7 million pilot program in Mountain View, but that responsibility was handed off last year to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Meanwhile, Bixi, the Montreal-based company that built and managed most of the Bike Share systems across North America, declared bankruptcy in 2014. A second private company -- New York-based Motivate International -- took over operations and reorganized its supply chain.
Around the time it took control, Motivate touted plans to grow the number of Bike Share bicycles by tenfold in the Bay Area by 2017. But that expansion included only San Francisco, San Jose and the Oakland area. By late last year, Mountain View city staff members say they learned that MTC and its corporate partners would no longer continue funding the service. If Mountain View wanted to keep the program, it now had to pay for it or else Motivate would begin removing all the stations and the bike fleet by July, said transportation manager Linda Forsberg.
On May 17, the Mountain View City Council was presented with "stopgap" plans to keep the Bike Share service going while a longer-term agreement could be negotiated. As part of this deal, Motivate officials agreed to work with Mountain View on an extension through November. After that, the city would have to negotiate a new Bike Share contract with Motivate that would extend through June of 2017. At a cost of $13,300 per month, city staff estimated Mountain View would need $160,000 to keep the Bike Share system going for this period.
During that time, city staffers said they would work on ways to retool the service, perhaps in cooperation with nearby cities, in the hopes of finding a superior system that would attract more riders.
"Quite bluntly, we see this as stopgap -- We believe in the value of Bike Share, but we don't believe the current configuration makes sense," said City Manager Dan Rich. "It's my expectation that one year from now it's unlikely we'll have a continuation of the same system."
But the idea of subsidizing an underused program clearly miffed council members. Doing some simple division, city staff said the cost would break down to $19.50 per rider. At that price, it almost makes sense for Mountain View to just buy a fleet of bikes and dole them out to people, some council members suggested. A nice bike could be bought for just $500, said Mayor Pat Showalter. But she said it ultimately made sense to keep Bike Share going if the system could be fine-tuned into a viable transit option.
"While that's a steep number, I think what we're trying to do here is bring about social change." she said. "It'd be much more powerful system if you could ride to Caltrain, ride up to Redwood City and ride out to Facebook."
But was that line of thinking just throwing good money after bad? Councilman John McAlister suggested his colleagues were being foolhardy if they thought a proven failure could now be revitalized. Even bike-friendly Palo Alto was seeing dismal ridership numbers for its Bike Share, he pointed out.
"One company went bankrupt; MTC wants to pull the plug; and now we're on our third lifespan with this program," he said. "I don't see how this operation will change between now and (next) July."
The city would still receive some aid in paying to continue Bike Share. The local Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit consortium of the city's tech firms and developers, announced it would contribute $60,000 toward keeping Bike Share alive and upgrading the system for the future. Speaking for the group, Tom Harrington of Intuit said city officials were essentially free to use the money as they saw fit.
The Bike Share decision came to a tight vote. Councilman John Inks was firmly opposed to continuing the program, but McAlister's stance was more nuanced. He supported allowing staff to continue negotiations with Motivate to retain and upgrade the Bike Share system, but he couldn't support the city paying $160,000 for it. With Councilman Mike Kasperzak absent for the meeting, that resulted in a 4-2 split, just short of the five votes needed for the council to allocate money.
After approving all the other staff recommendations, the council agreed to reconsider paying for the Bike Share service at the Tuesday, May 24 meeting when all seven members will be present.