When the Metropolitan Transportation Commission approved a tenfold expansion of Bay Area Bike Share in 2015, the move was lauded as a major victory for regional cooperation. Whereas the Bay Area’s two dozen transit agencies operate a disjointed and inefficient system, Bay Area Bike Share was supposed to provide a single, seamless regional bike share system. Motivate signed an exclusivity contract to provide bike share service in five cities (Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose), which was later rebranded as Ford GoBike. After the approval of the program’s expansion, Damian Breen, Deputy Executive Officer at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), declared: “What we have is the first bicycle sharing program in California, and the first regional bicycle sharing program nationally.” Moreover, Breen asserted that the program would accommodate further growth across the region: “It creates a clear path for other areas to join through the $4.5 million [grant program open to the region’s cities].” Optimism was high.
Two years later, Ford GoBike’s rollout continues to be mired in delays, questionable decisions, and controversy. Backlash from bike rental companies, residential neighborhoods, and anti-gentrification advocates has slowed the implementation process, while a sparse deployment of stations has depressed ridership compared to peer systems. Meanwhile, other Bay Area cities clamoring for bike share service have been shut out: no regional bike share grants have been issued, and the one-size-fits-all, dock-based system has been cost-prohibitive for cities and employers to buy into.
Frustrated with the high cost and lack of opportunities to buy into the Ford GoBike system, cities and employers have increasingly turned to Motivate’s competitors. At least five bike share companies now operate across the Bay Area, including Social Bicycles, LimeBike, Spin, Zagster, and B-Cycle. The deployment of these systems has taken different forms: some cities have or will subsidize their own dockless systems, including San Mateo (Bay Bikes) and upcoming systems in Healdsburg, Palo Alto, and several cities along the SMART rail corridor. Dozens of employers have subsidized the launch of their own campus-focused dockless systems, ranging from Bishop Ranch to Genentech to Santa Clara University. Recently, a new wave of venture capital-backed dockless bike share companies led by LimeBike and Spin have developed partnerships with cities including South San Francisco and Alameda, while also informally launching service in San Mateo and Moutain View. Without clear boundaries, these bikes have made their way into neighboring cities like San Bruno, San Francisco, and Oakland.
The bike share landscape is on the cusp of a full-scale disruption. Armed with loads of cash, LimeBike, Spin, and other dockless companies seem poised to roll out their low-cost systems wherever they can, doing so at a rate exponentially faster than Motivate and other dock-based systems. Already, the status of Motivate’s exclusive five-city agreement is uncertain: following BlueGogo’s failed launch earlier this year, Social Bicycles is now seeking a permit for Jump, a dockless e-bike program. Countless other cities will surely consider no-strings-attached proposals from dockless operators over the next year. But dockless systems bring their own headaches due to reckless bike parking, lack of Clipper integration or low-income memberships, and a shaky record of maintenance.
It’s unfortunate that the Bay Area’s decade-long regional bike share planning effort has produced yet another fragmented transportation system; however, embracing competition and growing pains may ultimately produce a better outcome. When MTC finally issues its $4.7 million in bike share grants sometime next year, it will implicitly choose between fighting a turf war on behalf of Motivate against rival bike share operators or coordinating a regional bike share marketplace with a range of operators.
Contrary to MTC’s original vision, the most critical features of a regional system – coordination of pricing structures, Clipper integration, ubiquitous bike racks/docks, management of rebalancing and parking, and subsidy vouchers for equitable access – do not necessarily require a single regional operator. Scaling bike share across the Bay Area represents a key opportunity for growing bicycling use; in order to realize its potential, we need strategic leadership that is willing to adapt to a changing bike share landscape and develop innovative solutions.