In our final installment of our Priorities series, we look at the current status of bike share.
Part III: Bike Share
Bike share is a public system of bicycles designed to be rented for short term use. The style of bike and technology used for securing and checking out bikes varies by vendor. Some systems use a docking system, while others use smart technology like a geofence. Typical systems offer day passes or memberships that charge a monthly or annual rate to use. Bike rentals are structured so that once you’ve paid to check out a bike, the first portion (typically a half hour) of your rental is free with a subsequent hourly rate for overages. The key to a high performing bike share system is density. Best practices recommend siting stations no further than a mile apart and along popular routes. Bike share can be a critical component to improving first and last mile transit connectivity. Hundreds of cities around the world have launched successful bike share systems. Bike advocates see public bike share systems as critical to normalizing biking, and building a truly bicycle friendly city.
Baltimore has been attempting to launch bike share for nearly five years. Depending on who you ask, this current ideation is attempt number three or four. The reasons that bike share has failed to launch in previous years are complex. In one instance, the vendor contract expired before the city was able to launch the system. In another, a vendor was selected and then went bankrupt--forcing the city to go through the request for proposals process again.
There has also been a lot of negative public perception of bike share. Many people in Baltimore have little knowledge of what bike share actually is, and instead choose to make ignorant claims that all the bikes will be stolen or that the heavier bikes won’t make it up our hilly landscape. To date, bike share theft is incredibly rare. The technology makes it incredibly difficult to steal a bike in the first place, and in instances where a bike does come out of the system due to theft, the heavily branded bicycles with specialized components designed to take abuse hold zero resale value. The bikes are categorically different in all ways from the Ride around the Reservoir bikes belonging to Rec and Parks that were stolen two years ago. So any comparison of the two programs is baseless. Vendors also have lots of flexibility when it comes to bike type, so there is no doubt whatever bike is selected for the Baltimore system will take into account things like durability, harsh winters, and hills.
But this hit to public perception means that our bike share is launching into a political space much less forgiving than other cities. Which heightens the stakes.
Where the Project Stands Today
The city has secured $2.8 million in state and federal funds to launch bike share. In September of 2015, the city once again issued the request for proposals. The city stated to the press that they would plan to launch with 250 bikes in the initial phase.
Bikemore found it hard to reconcile the small scale of the launch with the Mayor stating how bike share was supposed to be “transportation solution.” Other cities typically launch with systems double that size. But given past failures, this conservative estimate seemed to be an attempt to under promise and over deliver.
Baltimore City DOT is determined to execute the launch of bike share differently this time. The new RFP process created a special layer to the procurement process--a technical review--which will weight each proposal on criteria set forth by DOT. This was a progressive move that allowed them to attract the top vendors in the country rather than base the decision purely on cost. Currently there are six proposals under review. Additionally, Bikemore was able to advocate for community members to be part of the technical review team. Greg Henchcliffe and Chris Merriam, both former Bikemore Executive Directors serve on the committee. Members of the technical review team are assessing proposals on many factors but some key items they are discussing are ability of the system to integrate with Capital Bike Share in DC and the ability to accept cash payment for membership--improving bike share access to the unbanked. Baltimore City DOT also hired a full time bike share coordinator, James Decker to oversee the project.
Currently the launch is in the proposal review stage. While we do not know an exact date that a contract will be awarded, we suspect it will be before spring. BCDOT also hired Comcast Spectra to help solicit corporate sponsorship of stations. They are the firm responsible for assisting with the launch of Indego--Philadelphia’s Bike Share system.
The work of securing sponsorship is key. Understanding how much money is available will ultimately drive the size of the phase I launch. In a move that surprised everyone skeptical of the Hogan’s administration track record of investing in Baltimore, included in the new Baltimore Link plan is $500 thousand for bike share stations or hardware at transit stops throughout the city. This investment, plus early sponsorship projections have led the city to increase its estimated phase I launch to 300-400 bikes. The sooner sponsorships are confirmed, including a potential title sponsorship, the numbers will continue to increase.
The city is also taking key steps to establish a separate 501c3 that will allow money raised through bike share sponsorships to be held separately from the general fund. This will ensure that money secured for bike share, stays for bike share--regardless of who becomes Mayor next fall.
The system is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2016.
What We are Watching For
Station Siting: We know that two things are critical to bike share’s success. 1) a dense system to encourage use 2) cost recovery in the form of day passes and memberships. Cost recovery for bike share is typically highest from day use, which means in order for a system to be financially successful some intention for it to be used as a tourist amenity has to be considered. From an urban planning perspective, and because of where much of the newer bike facilities are being installed over the next year, it becomes pretty clear where phase I stations might go. But if as a city we are going to embrace bicycling, and solve some of the first and last mile connectivity issues plaguing our residents it is going to be critical that bike share service more neighborhoods than just the Inner Harbor and Central Downtown. We know DOT is committed to bike share operating equitably, but we are concerned that with the size of the phase I launch and the planning demands on the system exactly how those goals will be achieved. We will be working with DOT and the selected vendor to ensure neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore also receive the benefit of bike share.
Delivery: After all of the challenges, it is critical that bike share meets budgetary and scheduling goals. If it were to fail on any of these fronts, the fall out for bicycles in general could be huge. We have an immense opportunity to change how our city thinks about bikes as transportation with this project and we are working with those responsible for delivery to ensure they have what they need to be successful.
Public Perception: There are going to be plenty of myths to bust, people to win over, and backlash to combat. This is typical of any bike share (or frankly bike) project in Baltimore. But the key to remember is that this time really is different. So far, the project has shown immense promise in both how it has been managed and its capacity to stay on schedule. It has been an incredibly long road to get to this point, but it does seem possible that bike share is finally in Baltimore’s future.
The Fruits of our Labor
As we wrap our series on taking a look back at our priorities, it is incredibly humbling to see how we’ve grown. What began as a dozen or so folks coming together to build a voice for local bike advocacy has in four short years developed into a network of thousands of stakeholders. After years of building support for concepts, in 2016 we will begin to see many of our original priorities come to life. And that is a direct credit to our members. When we tell lawmakers or city leaders that we have over 500 dues paying members and thousands of stakeholders, it means something. Your support has allowed us to move from the fringes of policy discussions to having a seat at the table, and having our issues taken seriously.
This year is about growth. Both organizationally as we add staff and secure office space over the next few months (big kid nonprofit stuff!), and as we see our vision for a safer, healthier, and more livable Baltimore take shape. In many ways our work is just beginning, but it is evident that this year will allow us to close the first chapter of our story. Thank you for continuing to be the best part of our story, and helping us build a force for biking in Baltimore.
More in this series: