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.