Palo Alto's effort to roll out a bike-share program for the community is set to take another turn Monday night, when the City Council considers a new proposal that would bring a 350-bike system to several areas of the city.
The proposed five-year contract between the city and the bike-share company Social Bicycles (SoBi) would establish 35 stations, each equipped with 10 "smart bikes." The city would pay $1,104,550 for the equipment, while SoBi would procure a system sponsor to handle the operational costs, according to a report from Department of Planning and Community Environment.
If approved, the new agreement would represent another change in direction for the city, which has been shopping around for a new bike-share operator for several months. Palo Alto's prior bike-share program, operated by Motivate, fizzled out of existence last fall after several years of meager usage. According to statistics from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and city staff, bikes in the program were taken for a ride just 0.17 times per day between September 2014 and 2015 (the industry standard is one ride per day).
Last fall, the council signaled its interest in signing a fresh contract with Motivate that would expand the program from 37 to 350 bikes and that would adopt “smart bikes” made by SoBi. Unlike the prior bike-share program, which relied on technology in the five bike hubs to track usage, the new one features GPS technology on the bikes themselves, which gives users more flexibility in picking up and dropping off the bikes.
Since then, however, negotiations between the city and Motivate collapsed, according to planning staff. Motivate reportedly changed its position on allocating revenues to neighboring communities to help offset operating costs, the staff report states. The company also was unable to meet the city's desired timeline and its "desired service levels with respect to daily maintenance, rebalancing and operations of the bike share system."
Because Motivate operates the regional Bay Area Bike Share program, Palo Alto officials were hoping that the new Palo Alto program can be integrated into the larger system, despite its reliance on different technology than is used elsewhere. But after further negotiations, Motivate was "uncertain in its ability to operate the two bike share systems seamlessly within the regional system with complete membership reciprocity and full access to the entire system," the new report states.
The new SoBi contract is similar in some respects to the Motivate proposal. Once again, the city would front the capital costs and the private vendor would take care of the operations. SoBi would handle all bike share siting and permitting, according to staff, and city would pay a $1,000 per-station fee (in the Motivate proposal, the price was $4,000 per station).
While the new vendor may make integration with the broader bike-share network complicated, the proposed contract calls for SoBi to "proactively pursue integration" with the Clipper 2.0 project undertaken by Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The project calls for creation of a "digital wallet" that would allow users to easily switch from various bike share and transit systems with one payment method.
SoBi, which already operates bike-share systems in San Mateo, Santa Monica, Phoenix and Portland, Oregon, would rely on sponsorship funds and membership fees. In San Mateo, fares for using bike share are $15 per month for one hour of daily ride time or $5 for a day pass. Palo Alto staff expect a similar rate structure here.
One question that has yet to be resolved is station location. Some hubs will inevitably be located in downtown, around California Avenue and at Stanford Research Park (which has expressed an interest in purchasing about 20 bikes). If the contract is approved, SoBi would conduct an outreach campaign to solicit community input, with the goal of maximizing ridership. Under the proposed timeline, the new program could be launched as early as July through a phased rollout that would begin downtown.
The five-year contract with SoBi also allows two three-year extensions, with the city having an option to add bikes and hubs in future phases. If things go as planned, the system would also expand beyond the city's borders. Mountain View and Redwood City have reportedly expressed interest in the proposed bike-share system and Palo Alto officials have been considering the potential for bringing bike share to the Stanford University campus.