Palo Alto's small and underused bike-share system would undergo a ten-fold expansion and a technological makeover under a partnership that the city is negotiating with Motivate, which operates the existing network and which is working with Ford Motor Company on a new Bay Area-wide program.
The deal, which the City Council is scheduled to discuss on Oct. 4, would increase the number of bikes in the city's network from the current level of 37 to about 350, with Motivate covering the annual operating costs. The city would be responsible for buying the bikes, which would be equipped with GPS systems that allow riders greater flexibility in where they pick up and drop off the bicycles.
In both scope and technology, the revamp would radically change the existing system, which features five stations (three downtown and two on Park Boulevard) and dozens of mostly unused bikes. According to statistics from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and city planning staff, a bike in Palo Alto's system was taken for a ride 0.17 times per day between September 2014 and August 2015, far below the industry standard of one ride per day. (In San Francisco, the rate was a comparatively robust 2.51 trips.)
Given that underwhelming performance, Palo Alto's transportation planners have been looking for new options. In July, the council favored a switch to "smart bikes," in which tracking technology is embedded on a bike rather than at a docking station. This allows bikes to be dropped off at standard racks in designated "hubs."
At the time, the city considered switching from the existing Motivate system, which also serves San Francisco, Redwood City, Mountain View and other Bay Area cities, to one operated by Social Bicycles, which uses smart bikes and operates in San Mateo, Phoenix, Santa Monica and Portland, Oregon.
The city's effort to revamp its bike-share program has coincided with another transformation: Ford Motor Company's recent shift into the bike-share game. As part of its new focus on what it calls "smart mobility," the car giant announced last week its plan to underwrite a colossal expansion of Motivate's Bay Area-wide bike-share program, raising the number of bikes from 700 to 7,000. The seven-year partnership between Motivate and Ford would bring 4,500 bikes to San Francisco (up from 328) and 1,000 to San Jose (up from 129). It would also bring 850 bikes to Oakland, 400 to Berkeley and 100 to Emeryville, according to a news release from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which has a contract with Motivate for the bike-share program.
Since the July council meeting, the city's Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello and transportation planner Chris Corrao have been discussing with Motivate the possibility of joining the pack. Mello told the Weekly that Motivate has committed to covering the operations and providing a membership plan that allows access to both systems. If the local program follows the model of the regional one, Ford would underwrite these costs. Ford, which in 2015 opened its Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, has not yet committed to paying for the Palo Alto program.
Palo Alto's entry into the expanded bike-share partnership could have ramifications for neighboring communities -- and symbolize a major step forward in a new effort to collaborate regionally.
In May, Palo Alto City Manager James Keene signed an agreement with the city managers of Menlo Park, Mountain View and Redwood City and with Stanford University's Senior Associate Vice President William Phillips to "jointly address the transportation and mobility challenges facing the region in the wake of population growth and economic expansion."
The group, known as Managers' Mobility Partnership, acknowledged that many challenges the cities and Stanford are working on are "regional in nature and cannot be addressed if each jurisdiction works in isolation."
One area in which they pledged to work together is on enhancing bicycle lanes and associated infrastructure, "with a goal of creating an interconnected regional network." They also agreed to direct their staffs to cooperate and collaborate and to seek partnerships with the private sector.
Keene said Monday that, from staff's perspective, moving ahead using a regional approach is one of the main benefits of the potential partnership with Ford and Motivate. When the City Council signaled its intent in July to drift away from Motivate and to create a new smart-bike system with Social Bicycles technology, it risked going it alone.
Now, with Motivate and Ford preparing to take charge of Palo Alto's revamped system, the city can link to others' throughout the Bay Area. Over the last few months, Keene said Monday, "all the pieces have fallen into place" and the other parties are preparing to make their own announcements about participating in the Ford/Motivate system.
Keene said he has also asked major companies and employment centers, most notably in Stanford Research Park, to get involved, and they have expressed interest.
"I think it's going to have a dramatic change in bike-sharing programs," Keene said of the Ford-sponsored system.
According to Mello, Motivate has agreed to use smart-bike technology on the Peninsula even as it continues to use its current stations and bikes in the larger cities.
The negotiated terms, he said, would offer Palo Alto two options. Under one scenario, Motivate would pay for operations, while the city would cover the capital costs, which are estimated at about $1 million. Mello said some of these costs could be offset by grants, including a $171,000 grant that the city has already received for the program.
Another option would require the city to pay for operations (the costs are about $100 per bike per month) but would allow the city to make money from advertising on the bikes. The council is expected to consider both alternatives when it discusses the proposed terms on Oct. 4.
Mello said the "big takeaway" in the new deal is the fact that the city will be able to pursue the technology it wants while remaining within the regional network.
"We're not breaking out and creating a breakaway parallel system that's not coordinated with the other systems," Mello said. "We're able to stay part of the Bay Area bike-share system so that someone from Oakland, San Francisco or San Jose can come to Palo Alto and use the bike-share system with the same account."