As Bay Area Bike Share inches toward a tenfold expansion by 2018, a new Chinese bike share company, Bluegogo, may try to beat it to the streets. Bluegogo recently launched an English website that prominently features San Francisco, and has posted job listings across the Bay Area. Bluegogo has recently made waves across China, launching 70,000 bikes in three cities in its first month. The company manufactures 10,000 bicycles a day with its own dockless GPS-enabled “smart bike” system that can be parked anywhere accessed via an app.
Bluegogo’s potential entry into the Bay Area faces a multitude of barriers, including the exclusive rights agreement that Motivate/Bay Area Bike Share hold in participating cities (San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville) as well as the permitting requirements in each city it enters. However, if the success of Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb are any indication, Bluegogo may find a way to persist by circumventing existing regulations and maneuvering around legal challenges.
If Bluegogo can survive its dubious legal standing, it could offer some mobility benefits. Bay Area Bike Share will still have its limitations post-expansion due to its misallocation of service and lack of station density. Bluegogo could provide a compelling alternative with more accessible point to point service and a pay per use pricing structure (their website suggests that a ride could cost just 99 cents). After five years of waiting for Bay Area Bike Share’s expansion, there’s also something alluring about the instant gratification Bluegogo could offer. There is a real threat of Bluegogo undermining Bay Area Bike Share’s service, but there may also be room for both services to thrive serving different trip types, neighborhoods, and cities.
Bluegogo’s launch may also adversely affect the cities in which it operates. Critics point to Bluegogo’s lack of obligation to serve the public good. Bay Area Bike Share underwent a painstaking public process to develop an equitable service area and pricing structure: it will provide service to some lower income neighborhoods and will offer heavily discounted memberships to people who qualify for lifeline programs like discounted utilities. Bluegogo, in contrast, has no reason to serve such communities.
However the equity implications of Bluegogo’s service may be overblown. While Bay Area Bike Share’s equity efforts are laudable, the reach of these efforts remains somewhat limited. Due to constraints associated with the cost and service area of a dock-based system, Bay Area Bike Share will still provide limited or no service to most low income neighborhoods in the cities it serves (neighborhoods such as Hunter’s Point and East Oakland will not be served, while other neighborhoods within its service area will lack a useful station density). Moreover, eligibility requirements for discounted memberships are likely to exclude many low income households who could still benefit from more affordable bike share service. If Bluegogo can deliver a more accessible service to a wider range of people via a more competitive pricing structure, it could be a part of the solution to reducing barriers to mobility faced by low-income communities.
A more concerning issue is the lack of bike parking accommodations for Bluegogo bikes. Since Bluegogo’s bikes include kickstands, they can be parked literally anywhere – including obstructing sidewalks, driveways, and streets. A bike parking free-for-all could be a mess and potentially create safety hazards if someone gets hurt (which is precisely why the city has a permitting process). This issue is not one to take lightly, and is a major reason why many bicycle advocates like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition oppose its rollout.
It remains to be seen if Bluegogo will launch or how long it will stick around, but it’s also too early to pass judgement. There are undoubtedly significant issues with Bluegogo’s implementation. Nevertheless, there remains an unmet need for better bike share service in the region that Bay Area Bike Share may not fulfill, causing some cities like San Mateo and Palo Alto to moving forward with smart bike systems of their own. Bluegogo is probably not the solution to these lingering issues, and could do more harm than good. However, if Bluegogo can find a way to safely and legally deliver another bike share option to the Bay Area, then what’s not to like?