News

City prepares to shift gears on bike-share program

Palo Alto looks to boost participation with 'smart' technology, more stations

It's been a banner year for biking in Palo Alto: New bicycle boulevards, green lanes and "sharrow" ("share the road") markings have popped up in one neighborhood after another, and city officials have vowed to do even more in the months ahead to get the community pedaling.

Given this momentum around cycling, a program in Palo Alto known as Bay Area Bike Share has been exceptional precisely for how badly it has fared. Despite the regional bike-rental program's cost of more than $10 million -- mostly paid for by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) -- the system has found little traction in Palo Alto, where it has been installed since August 2013.

Palo Alto's five light-blue Bike Share stations -- three downtown and two along Park Boulevard -- are little used, according to statistics from the MTC and city staff. Palo Alto's Chief Transportation Official Josh Mello noted during an April presentation that a bike in Palo Alto's nascent program was taken for a ride 0.17 times per day between Sept. 1, 2014, and Aug. 21, 2015, well below the industry threshold of one ride per day. In San Francisco, the Bay Area Bike Share rate has been a comparatively stellar 2.51 trips per day.

Participation in Palo Alto improved slightly this year (in February, the rate was a less meager 0.51 rides per day), but city staff and the City Council agreed at the April 25 meeting that the results remain underwhelming.

"By any measure, this is a pretty poorly designed bike-share system," Mello said.

"You don't have the density of coverage. You're really limited to traveling just a couple of blocks from the Caltrain station," he said, referring to the system designed to offer Caltrain commuters a way to travel that "last mile" to their workplaces.

Initially envisioned as a seven-station network, with two stations at Stanford University, it was ultimately pared down to just five -- all fairly close to a train depot.

Palo Alto isn't the only city where Bay Area Bike Share has been a flop. In Redwood City, which has seven stations and 115 bikes, the rate of trips per day per bike was a piddling 0.08 between Sept. 1, 2014, and Aug. 31, 2015. Mountain View and San Jose did somewhat better, with rates of 0.39 and 0.31, respectively.

Now, however, Palo Alto intends to shift to a different type of bike-share program once the current one expires Nov. 30. (The council on June 20 actually approved a $37,500 extension of the contract, which was set to expire on July 1.)

Specifically, the city is looking at a "smart bike" system, in which technology is imbedded on bikes rather than in "smart dock" stations used by Motivate, which runs Bay Area Bike Share. Each bike would be equipped with a small black box that includes a computer processor linking it to a central computer. In many cases, these bikes could be checked out with a phone app and then returned to designated hubs, which would feature standard bike racks.

The leading contender to administer the program is Social Bicycles, a company that has recently implemented a 50-bike pilot program in San Mateo and that also operates in Long Beach, Phoenix, Santa Monica, Tampa and, most recently, Portland, Oregon.

In Palo Alto, the move from Motivate to SoBi would go well beyond a technological shift. It would also be a change in the program's geographic scope. The MTC recently funded a study that considered Palo Alto's high-demand areas, evaluated other suburban communities' bike programs, and determined that the ideal size for a bike-share program in Palo Alto would feature 35 stations. Those locations might include downtown, around California Avenue, near the Stanford University Medical Center, around Stanford Research Park and at other "major attractions" and public facilities, according to a report from city planning staff.

The shift is being driven in large part by economics. Keeping the current Motivate system would cost Palo Alto about $33 per trip, according to Mello. Expanding the Motivate system to 35 stations would reduce the per-trip cost to $6, but it would also require the city to spend about $1.8 million on the 29 new stations.

Switching to a "smart bike" system, administered by SoBi, could drop the per-trip expenses to $3 per trip, a cost that Mello noted "puts it in line with the typical (public) transit trip."

However, the program's startup costs wouldn't be cheap. Because the city would be buying an entire fleet of bikes and paying for new stations and a new vendor, the program is projected to cost the city about $4 million over a five-year period.

Even so, council members generally agreed that switch would be worthwhile. Councilman Marc Berman said that if the the city plans to keep going with bike-share programs, SoBi is "the right option." Vice Mayor Greg Scharff pointed to the city's deteriorating traffic conditions and said he'd like to see the city "move as quickly as possible" on switching to a new bike-share program.

"When you look at these numbers, it seems hard to imagine choosing Motivate over SoBi," Scharff said. "It seems to me this is where we should go on this."

The council will still have plenty of decisions to make about the new program, including the locations of new stations. In April, members offered varying ideas, with Councilman Tom DuBois stressing the importance of having stations at dense employment sites like Stanford Research Park, Councilwoman Karen Holman saying she would like to see some at local hotels, and Mayor Pat Burt making the case for having stations in neighborhoods, so that residents would have a good option for biking to Caltrain.

These decisions will be further evaluated in August or September, when the council is next scheduled to discuss a potential agreement with SoBi.

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Comments

37 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 8, 2016 at 8:17 am

The present system is no use to anyone. It doesn't help residents because there are none in any neighborhood and is very little use to Caltrain commuters as there are no stations near their destinations.

If we could access them from our neighborhoods and leave them at the Caltrainstation, the high schools, Stanford shopping center, and even into Mountain View or Menlo, at say San Antonio center, Castro Street and downtown Menlo, we might actually use them. Our family has had multiple bike problems with damage and thefts. Using a bike share program where someone else deals with the maintenance could actually cost us less money!

Why does everything done on the Peninsula end up being piecemeal. The borders between cities and counties are crossed every day by all of us in our daily lives. We need to be able to cross the invisible lines and stop the patchwork barriers that prevent innovations.


36 people like this
Posted by They Got It WRONG
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2016 at 8:20 am

They should have put them in the residential neighborhoods, to make them more accessible to RESIDENTS!

As it is, they are barely touched by commuters who work in Palo Alto--they bring their own bikes with them on the train!


29 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2016 at 10:01 am

We agree that the current Palo Alto bike share system is a big fail with no stations in the residential neighborhoods. At a minimum, we should have stations at the public libraries, residential shopping centers, and bigger city parks.

However, leaving the Bay Area Bike Share system sounds like a big mistake as well. Currently, users pay an annual fee to use the bike share in Palo Alto as well as San Francisco and San Jose. If they added bike share stations in the residential neighborhoods, we could use the bike share to ride to the Caltrain station, then take the train to San Francisco or San Jose, then pick up another bike share at the train stations in those cities. Since those bike shares are all part of the same system, they are covered by our same annual fee. If Palo Alto creates a separate system, will the fee also cover the San Francisco and San Jose bike share or do we have to pay a duplicate fee?

A big problem with the current Palo Alto bike share is that we get too little for the annual fee. Don't create the same problem by forcing people to pay 2 annual fees for 2 incompatible Bay Area bike share systems.


18 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 8, 2016 at 11:19 am

I have to echo the sentiments already expressed. The first time I saw those racks of bikes, I said, well that won't work. Why was there no "focus group" testing on this? whose idea was this? is there no responsibility?

It would be cheaper to just give WalMart priced bikes to people who want/need them, make them as non-valuable and thus non stealable as possible, and continue to encourage safe bike lanes and improve bike-friendliness on trains and buses. Ask Google. That's what they do. It works, everyone knows that. oh, wait...Palo Alto doesn't.


11 people like this
Posted by Anne
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2016 at 2:29 pm

When I looked into this program I thought the price to check out a bike was ridiculously high. People using bikes near Caltrain are already paying for CalTrain. You need to make bike rental very cheap or free to get people to use them, like Google bikes.


4 people like this
Posted by Anne
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2016 at 2:29 pm

When I looked into this program I thought the price to check out a bike was ridiculously high. People using bikes near Caltrain are already paying for CalTrain. You need to make bike rental very cheap or free to get people to use them, like Google bikes.


6 people like this
Posted by Anne
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2016 at 2:33 pm

When I looked into this program I thought the price to check out a bike was ridiculously high. People using bikes near Caltrain are already paying for CalTrain. You need to make bike rental very cheap or free to get people to use them, like Google bikes. Besides that you are on the hook for $1200 if the bike gets stolen; these bikes are not worth $1200.


17 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 8, 2016 at 3:18 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

The program has been complete boondoggle - hugely expensive, no benefit except to the corporation who runs it, which not surprisingly is packed with ex-government officials. It is as close to corrupt as you can get with crossing the legal limit.

It would be more friendly to cyclists if they got rid of the bike share program, but just kept the space allocated to bike racks.


16 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 8, 2016 at 4:15 pm

The purpose for the bike share program is municipal ego, so Palo Alto can tell the world it has a bike share program. It gets puff points for things involving bicycles. Utility is not a requirement.


13 people like this
Posted by observer
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2016 at 5:29 pm

"we get too little for the annual fee"

I disagree. I think we get absolutely nothing.


5 people like this
Posted by LoveIT
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 8, 2016 at 10:17 pm

We need more of these bike racks - they SHOULD be in every neighborhood. The problem is there are just too many cars. Palo Alto should go further than bike blvds and have some streets where cars are banned. If the city then paid for free bike share, say similiar to Google, we could really put a dent in traffic.


11 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 9, 2016 at 6:11 am

So, MTC taxes residents and motorists all over the Bay Area to spend $10 million on a bicycle sharing program that essentially nobody uses, in one of the wealthiest communities in the country, to the tune of $100/resident? This doesn't strike anybody as obscene?


Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 9, 2016 at 7:07 am

I saw several blue bike share bikes at Stanford. Tourists get off Caltrain and check out a bike for tooling around. Admittedly, there weren't a lot but there is some use for those bikes.


13 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 9, 2016 at 9:06 am

Think about it! They made a huge investment in an area where there is no demand for bike-sharing. Surprise, no one uses it and it was a waste of our money.

Did we the taxpayers authorize it? No!

How can they ignore the glaring reality that ***bicycle trips do not replace car trips*** they are now repeating the mistakes they made, instead of learning from them.

This will do nothing to alleviate traffic. The vast majority of people here either drive their cars, or already have their own bicycle if they intend to ride.



6 people like this
Posted by Thinking
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 9, 2016 at 9:19 am

Underground the train and make the entire right of way a bike and pedestrian boukevard where people could pick up bikes when they emerge from their stops or just for leisure. I think those little Google cars would be a good adjuct, making a little right of way just for them.


11 people like this
Posted by Bikin' Bruce
a resident of another community
on Jul 9, 2016 at 9:54 am

Bicycles to Nowhere.

I have been a Bay Area Bike Share (BABS) member for nearly a year. By last count I had the cost of my annual membership down to less than 50 cents a ride for a ride of 1.2 miles that would have cost me $2.25 every trip in the Muni Metro.
I used the San Francisco stations as a link in my Oakland to Stanford commute but have never used the Palo Alto Stations. Too few stations, too close together and with no real destinations. So I paid $99 p/year to keep a bike at the Palo Alto Bikestation for the last leg of my trip from Caltrain to Stanford. BABS has been a huge sucess in San Francisco and is now about to expand its presence into the East Bay, but as they come into Oakland and Berkeley they are holding neighborhood workshops to get input from residents on where to locate the stations, what routes would be served and to understand how residents intend to use the system.
I am concerned that the Social Bicycles will lay just as idle as the BABS bikes if they don't get imput from Palo Alto residents and out of town commutes alike on how to deploy them.


13 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 9, 2016 at 11:59 am

The problem with these do good programs is that there is no performance criteria. No one except the tax payers are on the hook to pay. How about a 10% pay cut to the yo yo that proposes these half cooked plans if it does not meet clear criteria going in. How about paying me $33 every time I ride my bike out of their pay checks. Enough.


7 people like this
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 9, 2016 at 12:22 pm

You can walk from the Caltrain station to any place downtown in no more than 10 minutes. A bike is not useful. They are spending money on a solution in search of a problem.

Maybe the California Ave Caltrain would attract commuters wanting to go to the Page Mill Rd area businesses.


4 people like this
Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 11, 2016 at 10:29 am

This seems like another done deal so I will go with the flow. Here are a couple of questions. First, I hope other agencies such as MTC are providing further seed funding. The first Blue Bikes concept seems like an mildly acknowledged failure.

Second, changing transportation modes is a slow process. Based on expert advice given to me, I conclude that success will be elusive, if ever, without significant, active management and marketing by responsible city staff person(s). Time and money spent early on will be essential. This level of front-end investment and management has not been traditional hallmark of city government.


5 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 11, 2016 at 10:35 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" I conclude that success will be elusive, if ever, without significant, active management and marketing by responsible city staff person(s)"

Correct. Just look at Stanford's Transportation Demand Management program - great results BUT they also spend a lot of money on staff, shuttle, train passes, etc and ALL paid for by parking fees.


8 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 11, 2016 at 12:19 pm

[Post removed.]


7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2016 at 12:51 pm

To change to another provider is stupidity as far as I can see. I would imagine that many people would want to say go to Mountain View to see a movie or to Menlo Park to visit Keplers, as examples. To do this we need to have the same system crossing city borders. We also need them in the neighborhoods as well as places we might want to go.

Why does Palo Alto give up and try a new provider instead of investing a bit more thought and energy in making the one we have work better and in conjunction with neighboring cities?


2 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 11, 2016 at 1:22 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Resident - It doesn't make sense to put them in residential neighborhoods because you can just use your own bike. The point of these systems is to make bikes available where you don't have access. These systems make no sense in sprawling suburban towns. They work in dense urban environments as supplements to mass transit.


2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2016 at 1:38 pm

John, not so sure about that. We have had so many bikes stolen or damaged in bike racks at school, that I would seriously consider this as a cheaper option.

Also, I know many people who live in town homes, rental apartments, etc. where space to store a bike is a problem. Many apartments don't allow people to keep bikes on balconies. A rental bike is an option for a one way trip with say an Uber ride home late at night or a carpool one way with a bike ride home.

I have seen these work in similar medium sized towns in Europe where people do use them for one way options or where they have no space for bike storage at home.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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