Friends of mine who don’t ride have been texting me lately with the same question. “What are all those new bikes?”
Welcome to the Bike Share Battle!
Brightly colored lime green bikes, many of them ebikes, have begun to appear in packs in Downtown San Jose. They are eye-catching, compliment the bright blue FordGo Bikes and are causing quite a stir. But that’s not the only place new bike share bikes are popping up. Burlingame and South San Francisco have new dockless bikes. And Palo Alto is working with neighboring cities to craft an ordinance to bring in bike share.
So what are all these new bikes? It’s quite a saga with many different story lines. We’ve blogged about it before, here. And, we have a blog focused on the equity story line coming next week.
This story line however is about the Bike Share Battle.
Just a short five years ago the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) and subsequently the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) funded a bike share pilot. Bay Area Bike Share was established in five cities – San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Redwood City, and San Francisco. The bike share pilot used the docking station model where there are pods of bikes that you check in and out with a membership, 30 minutes pod to pod. (I’m over generalizing throughout this article so that you don’t have to read a tomb.)
After about two years, Motivate, a company that runs bike share systems nation-wide, took over Bay Area Bike Share, more or less privatizing the pilot and avoiding the need for ongoing public funding.
Pause here for a second: At that time, there was basically no one else in the bike share market in the Bay Area. The promise of bike share was only chased by the true believers. Even you all, the SVBC membership, were skeptical when we sent out a membership survey. You said, “bike share…huh?”
As a part of the deal with Motivate to take over funding bike share from MTC, Motivate committed to making substantial investments in docking stations and additional bikes. They committed to serving low income folks through a low income membership and by locating bike share pods in low income areas. Also, they were not interested in continuing to serve Palo Alto, Mountain View and Redwood City. This is mainly because their experience showed that more urban areas with a strong tourist component yield a successful bike share business model.
In exchange, Motivate was given certain guarantees such as an exclusivity clause. That clause makes it difficult for any other bike share entity to enter territories where Motivate operates.
With a deal struck, Motivate went about planning its next phases of expansion while securing a title sponsor, Ford, to make their business model work through advertising revenue.
Then, the bike share world changed.
A year later SVBC started getting calls from privately backed bike share companies. Limebikes, Ofo, Zagster, Social Bicycles and others started showing interest. News reports described 100’s of millions of dollars flowing from venture capitalists (VCs) to this new, disruptive industry based upon a very old technology – the bicycle.
The preferred model being backed by VCs did not involve docking stations, rather, you download an app, ride a bike, and leave it wherever you want. You can locate bikes via the app and they lock on their own. Rides are about $1 each.
Fast forward to today, and all these companies are fighting for market share. That fight is complicated by the exclusivity clause secured by Motivate restricting access in Oakland/Berkeley/Emeryville, San Francisco, and San Jose. It is worth noting that these new companies may or may not be hindered by the same commitments Motivate is held to, like serving low income individuals. It depends upon each city’s ordinance for regulating bike share, assuming an ordinance exists.
That brings us up to date with bright green bikes being the most noticeable addition as of late with ebikes and escooters.
SVBC does not have a dog in the fight. We want bike share to succeed and are hopeful that the VC community has been thoughtful about a sustainable business model. That said, let’s be real. How many VC firms do you know that are driven by broader community goals? We live in a capitalist system by choice and it would be naïve to expect a company seeking a profit to prioritize the goals of the bike advocacy community. For that reason, we are fearful that a large amount of recklessness in attempting to undercut the competition will lead to an implosion of bike share overall. (China is a bit of a canary in the coal mine for us to learn from where 30 bike share companies are now consolidating along with some bankruptcy.)
Bike share promises to serve as a vital last mile solution for folks who live and work on Caltrain. It promises to better link more urban areas by providing a quick form of transportation for every day short trips. And overall, it promises to create one more inexpensive transportation option that increases mobility and choice for all.
The success of bicycling as a viable and sustainable mode of transportation is important to the future of human and environmental health. We sincerely hope that this bike share battle shakes out in a way that secures a role for bike share in the overall transportation ecosystem.