As the Bay Area's fledgling bike-share program prepares for a colossal regional expansion, its presence in Palo Alto may soon come to an end because of underwhelming ridership numbers.
Bay Area Bike Share, which allows customers to rent out bikes and return them at any other station in the city, rolled out in August 2013 as a partnership between the Bay Area Quality Management Air District, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and various Bay Area transportation agencies. So far, about $8.7 million has been spent on the program out of the $11.4 million budget, with the lion's share coming from the MTC.
The results so far have been promising, but very uneven. As of March 1, the system yielded a total of 485,000 trips in the five pilot cities (Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Jose, San Francisco and Redwood City), with San Francisco far ahead of the pack. According to the MTC data, riders in San Francisco took 436,000 trips since the program's inception, or 90 percent of the program's total. The city employs 328 bikes, almost half of the program's entire fleet.
Yet on the Peninsula, the program didn't really catch on. Palo Alto, where city officials are eagerly pushing ahead with more than a dozen bike-improvement projects, the Bike Share numbers have been comparatively woeful.
According to MTC data, a Palo Alto bike has a usage rate of 0.21 trips per day, fewer than both Mountain View (0.48) and San Jose (0.39). In San Francisco, which has 380 bikes, the rate is 2.6 daily trips per bike. Since the program launched in 2013, Palo Alto has experienced fewer than 5,000 total trips. This includes about 500 between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2014, MTC data shows.
The data is becoming increasingly relevant these days as the MTC and its partner agencies are planning a ten-fold expansion in the Bike Share system. The new proposal, which the MTC's Administrative Committee is set to discuss Wednesday, would deploy 7,000 bikes and expand the program to Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville.
Under the proposal laid out in a new report from MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger, San Francisco would have about 4,500 bikes, while San Jose and Oakland would have 1,000 and 850, respectively. The plan calls for rolling out about 25 percent of the new system by June 2016 and to complete the expansion by Nov. 1, 2017.
In Palo Alto, the Bike Share program currently employs 37 bikes at five stations: three in downtown, one near the California Avenue Caltrain station and one on Park Boulevard. The city is now eagerly pursuing more than a dozen bike projects, including a new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101, and its share of students pedaling to school has been rapidly increasing in recent years. Yet for all the excitement, the Bike Share program has been a flop and, as a result, Palo Alto is not included in the list of cities that would get bikes under the expanded program.
In addition to adding the East Bay cities, the new expansion plan calls for having 150 bikes with locations to be determined after the final planning. Of these, 50 would be in the East Bay, according to Heminger's report.
Robert Neff, who chairs the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee, a group that advises policy makers on bike issues, told the Weekly that the Bike Share bikes currently comprise just a tiny fraction of the bikes seen around Palo Alto.
Neff said he has only seen about five Bike Share bikes being used since the program rolled out. He speculated that this is because Palo Alto just doesn't have the type of size and density that makes bike share such a viable option in cities like San Francisco, New York City and Washington, D.C. In those cities, people can use the bike-share programs in conjunction with transit to plot out elaborate systems for getting around town. Neff, whose committee helped determine the stations where the bikes would be placed, said he's not too disappointed about Bike Share possibly leaving Palo Alto.
"I think it makes more sense to really get it going in places like San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, where there is more density and where it would be more widely used," Neff said. "In Palo Alto, a lot of people are riding from home and have their own bikes."
The low Bike Share ridership numbers in many ways validate the concerns of the city's Architecture Review Board, which expressed significant reservations about the program in August 2012, a year before it rolled out. At that time, several board members raised concerns about having so many stations downtown, within blocks of each other.
Judith Wasserman and Clare Malone Prichard, the board's former chair and vice chair, both suggested that people won't use the new service.
"Why would someone pick up a bike (at the train station) to go to Lytton Plaza when they can walk one mile? If it's only a mile, I'll walk. I'm not going to pick up a bike and pay for it," Malone Prichard said at the time.
"If I look at this map, and I get off the train, there's absolutely no reason for me to take a bike. If nobody uses them because there is nowhere to go, your project is going to tank," she said.
The determination of where to place the bikes in the expanded network was made by Motivate, the private company that would run the expanded bike fleet. Among the proposals that the MTC will consider at its May meeting is a shift from having the program be paid for with public funds to having it be completely privatized and overseen by Motivate, which currently runs New York City's bike-share program.
While the proposal has yet to be discussed by the MTC board, it is already stirring excitement among city leaders in the expanded areas.
Last week, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and Emeryville Mayor Ruth Atkin released a joint statement touting the program's potential for making it easier for people to get around the Bay Area.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, who chairs the MTC board, said he was "encouraged by the efforts of Motivate and the cities to put equity concerns front and center.
"I think my colleagues will give the proposal very serious consideration, and I look forward to it coming before the Administration Committee and later to the full Commission," he said.