Pedaling slowly

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With San Francisco bicycle rental companies such as Blazing Saddles and Bay City Bicycle Rentals and Tours having bike fleets numbering in the thousands, why does the new San Francisco bike share program only have 350 bikes? And can that really be effective?

In August, San Francisco and a handful of other Bay Area cities will join the ranks of the dozens of cities in the country that have bicycle share programs, although most are more robust than ours. For example, New York City’s bike share program offer 6,000 bikes.

Sponsored by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and bankrolled by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission with more than $7 million, the program will bring 700 bikes to the region — half of which will make their way to San Francisco.

In the following months, San Francisco could be allotted 500 total bikes. For the initial launch, 35 bike share stations will be spread throughout the city, and when the bicycle count rises, the number of stations will jump to 50.

MTC spokesperson Sean Co told us that most of the money for the program goes to the cost of the bikes themselves. Each bike costs $5,000, is outfitted with tracking technology, and is expected to last 10 years. In addition to being high-tech, all bike share bikes are unique to Alta Bike Share Systems, and require special tools to be taken apart, another factor in the high price tag.

The rest of money goes toward the stations and fees for a consultant that helps run the program. Co believes that the membership fees alone will make up for the over $7 million spent on the program. But that’s assuming the program isn’t a flop, which some fear it could be given the anemic number of bikes being offered.

 

WHY SO FEW?

New York City’s bike share, Citi Bike — financed completely by Citigroup Inc. with no public funds — launched in May with 6,000 bikes and 300 stations. That program is already approaching a million total rides. Chicago’s Divvy bike share system started off with 750 bikes at the beginning of July and will increase to 3,000 at the end of August.

Kit Hodge, deputy director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, is one of the people who says that 350 bikes just isn’t enough for San Francisco. “The city and SFMTA have estimated that it would take 3,000 bikes to have an effective bicycle share,” Hodge told us. “We definitely are pushing for more bikes.”

But San Francisco’s bicycle share may get the thousands of bikes that some believe it needs. The Board of Supervisors recently passed a resolution that calls on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Department of Public Works to have a much larger system by 2014.

“Five hundred bikes isn’t enough for a citywide bike share,” Sup. Scott Wiener, who sponsored the resolution, told us. “If you look at other cities with a large population and a lot of people biking, bicycle share stations have to be heavily concentrated in many different areas. With the 500 bikes, other areas of the city will be excluded.”

But critics like Wiener and Hodge may not have taken into account that this program is only a trial run, with enough funding to last a year, according to BAAQMD representatives.

BAAQMD Director of Strategic Incentives Damian Breen told us the program is just the right size: “We feel the pilot is appropriately sized. I don’t think we’ve limited ourselves at all. This is to test the waters and see what it can grow into.”

Breen also thinks that mainly focusing on San Francisco for the Bay Area-wide bicycle sharing program would be unfair to other cities. Unlike other bicycle sharing programs, such as New York City and Chicago, San Francisco’s bicycle sharing system is just one part of a regional program that includes Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose.

“This stage of the program is to see what works and what doesn’t,” Breen said. “Maybe the bicycle share might be used more in the suburbs than in San Francisco. When you do something regionally you have to take all cities and all outcomes into account.”

When asked if the bicycle sharing program would have increased the number of bikes in San Francisco if there was additional funding, he said no.

“I think obviously all partners would have liked the program to be bigger in certain areas,” Breen said. “Whether or not it would have been bigger in places like San Francisco, if there was more funding, I cannot say.”

Breen says BAAQMD will consider corporate sponsorship for the bike share once the initial money from the pilot runs out.

 

THE LAST MILE

The possibility of more stations and bike share rides in the city isn’t appealing to Blazing Saddles bicycle rental company owner Jeff Sears.

“If stations are placed in areas like the Fisherman’s Wharf, or North Beach, people may be tempted to use bike share instead,” Sears said. “But, we’ve been assured by the BAAQMD that that’s not going to happen.”

Breen says the service is directed at residents who commute, and may need the bike for that “last mile” of their trek.

“This is different than bicycle rentals, which are usually meant for a day of riding,” Breen said. “They are designed for 30 minute use — the main audience is folks who are looking for that last mile after they get off of Caltrain or BART.”

Breen went on to say that areas with bicycle sharing programs also saw bicycle renting programs go up as a whole. But Jeanne Orellana of Bay City Bicycle Rentals and Tours believes otherwise.

“We absolutely feel that it would affect business,” Orellana said. “We wish that it would coexist with our business, but other cities with bicycle sharing programs have seen bicycle rental shops close down due to the competition.” A scenario similar to what Orellana imagined played out in Miami Beach, Fla. Unlike the program in store for the Bay Area, Miami Beach’s DecoBike offers pricing plans for residents and tourists, and many of the tourists find themselves choosing the bike share over rental shops in the area, causing business in bicycle rental shops to reportedly drop 40 to 50 percent. Wiener acknowledges the reservations that Orellana and Sears hold about bike share, but he said that both options can coexist in the same city. “They’re two completely different markets,” Wiener said. “I understand the concerns that they have but comparing bike sharing and bicycle rental is like comparing apples to oranges.” And the BAAQMD, SFBC, SFMTA, and Wiener all agree on one thing: Tourists choosing bike share over bicycle rental companies just doesn’t make sense economically. Renting a bicycle for a day at Bay City Bicycle Rentals and Tours is $32. Taking a bicycle out for the day at the bike share comes at a heftier price. For $9, customers can get a 24-hour subscription with unlimited 30 minute rides from station to station. But after those 30 minutes are up, fees get added. A 31- to 60-minute ride costs $4, and each 30-minute increment after that costs $7, which can build up to over $150 in a day if the bicycle is not returned to a station. In the meantime, Orellana hopes that consumers will make the right decision for themselves. “I trust and hope that many people will do the math and find that bike share isn’t cheaper for exploring the city,” Orellana said. Co said that more than 300 people purchased memberships for the Bay Area bicycle share 24 hours after memberships were up for grabs a couple weeks ago. BAAQMD is pleased with the results, and viewed it as a good turnout. The official launch date has not been released, but its infrastructure is now being put into place with its imminent launch.