Palo Alto sets its bike-share program on new path

City Council invites private operators to bring their bikes to city streets

Palo Alto kicked off its newest bike- and scooter-share experiment Monday night, when the City Council approved a one-year pilot program that puts private-sector providers firmly in the saddle.

By a 7-2 vote, with Karen Holman and Lydia Kou dissenting, the council approved a program that effectively invites all vendors in the growing fields of bike- and scooter-sharing to bring their services to Palo Alto. This is a sharp turn from the city's prior program, which centered on a partnership between the city and the company Motivate, which operates the regional Bay Area Bike Share. That 37-bike program was discontinued in fall 2016 because of low ridership (the bikes were used an average of 0.17 times per day).

While the city's first attempt fizzled, the second one never took off. Last year, the city was negotiating a deal to expand the program to 350 bikes and to equip each bike with a GPS. That program, which would have required an investment of $1 million from the city, died when negotiations collapsed.

This time, the city plans to limit both its role and its investment in bike sharing. The rules that the council approved allow any operator in the quickly expanding field to acquire permits for their ride-sharing program, with no investment of public funds. City officials plan to largely sit back, monitor results, enforce rules and then determine in a year whether the program is worth continuing.

According to planning staff, the primary appeal of this sort of program is two-fold: more bikes and less public investment. A report from planners notes that initially, "Many cities experienced issues with the durability of the bicycles used; bicycles were parked haphazardly on sidewalks; and no city permits were secured for operations."

"However, over the course of the last year, several cities have enacted guidelines to address those concerns, and bike share vendors are now working directly with cities to address concerns and legitimize their operations," a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment states.

In approving the program, the council strayed from the recommendations of staff and the council's own Policy and Services Committee, which suggested that the total number of bikes be limited to 700 (electric scooters would not have a limit). The council instead decided Monday to not have any limits at all.

Councilman Adrian Fine, who made the proposal to remove the cap, argued that capping the program at 700 bikes could restrict the number of vendors. A successful bike-share program, he said, should encourage competition.

He also acknowledged that having too many bikes could lead to encroachment issues and proposed giving city staff the authority to cap the bike count if these issues crop up -- a proposal that won the support of the council majority.

Councilman Greg Scharff was among those who said that rather than having an "artificial cap," the city should have strict performance standards. If companies aren't meeting these standards, Scharff said, the city can always pull their permits.

"There's no indication that 700 would overburden the city in any way," Scharff said.

Holman and Kou both said they preferred the original recommendation. Others agreed that the limit isn't necessary, provided that staff has the authority to step in if the city's sidewalks end up littered with bikes.

The council moved to remove the cap after it was urged to do so by Katie Stevens, representing the bike-share company ofo, one of the vendors looking to set up shop in Palo Alto.

"We'd like the opportunity to bring out bikes to serve the city of Palo Alto based on operational services and not on the number of bikes," said Stevens, whose company is one of several that had reached out to Palo Alto, according to transportation staff.

Stevens also asked the council to remove a requirement that operators provide data on location usage, types of bikes, fuel levels and times that each bike was used. Councilman Greg Tanaka and Fine moved to do just that, though their proposal fell by a 2-7 vote.

The council did, however, strip away the proposed requirement that at least 50 percent of the bikes in the new system be located downtown or near California Avenue. They also specified that City Manager James Keene and planning staff will have the authority to reconsider this issue, based on the city's experiences with the new program.

The new guidelines prohibit the parking of bikes and scooters in ways that block pedestrian areas, access to buildings, bike racks or news racks. They also cannot be parked in loading zones, disabled zones, entryways and driveways.

The guidelines also require operators to have a minimum fleet of 100 bicycles or e-scooters, to have a staffed operation within the San Francisco Bay Area and to maintain a 24-hour customer-service phone number and a multilingual website. They will also be required to report the aggregated breakdown of customers by gender and age.

The pilot program will be in place until March 31, 2019.


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6 people like this
Posted by Taking a lead
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 6, 2018 at 5:36 pm

We are so behind the times on so many things, and I'm very glad we are now going to have bikeshares! Can;t understand while Holman and Kou would vote against this? Sure there can be problems, but I THINK we are able to solve them in Smart Palo Alto!

1 person likes this
Posted by Holman votes no
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 6, 2018 at 5:53 pm

[Post removed.]

10 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 6, 2018 at 6:21 pm

The city badly needs better ways to get around town without more single-occupancy cars and expensive new parking lots. The city's last attempt at bike share failed because there were not enough bikes and stations in the network. I hope this new system will avoid that problem so it is usable by city residents and not just out-of-town commuters.

11 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 6, 2018 at 6:32 pm

For these to work, they need to cross city boundaries. We need to be able to use them to get to the movies at Shoreline, to San Antonio or Castro Street business areas, to Menlo Park or to Ikea/Home Depot and Costco areas. For many the nearest Caltrain station would be San Antonio.

It doesn't make sense if Mountain View, Menlo and EPA have different non-integrating shares.

12 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 6, 2018 at 6:54 pm

@Resident - I agree. This system will be tremendously more useful if we could ride them to downtown Mountain View or downtown Menlo Park or Stanford. Hopefully those communities will get on board and give these bike share companies a chance. The city-by-city and county-by-county fragmentation of transit issues really tends to stifle innovation.

Like this comment
Posted by Karen
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 6, 2018 at 8:26 pm

[Post removed.]

14 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2018 at 10:15 am

You really think the average Palo Altan would set aside his Tesla to get on a dirty public bike and merrily ride it down the freeway to get to work?? By the way stop EXPERIMENTING with our tax dollars. What is going on with this bicycle fetish!

10 people like this
Posted by Charade
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 7, 2018 at 10:56 am

Why does the City of Palo Alto keep investing the money on the wrong things? Bike/Scoot sharing? Are you kidding me? Most of the Palo Altoers who like to bike already have their own bikes. How much money has the city spent on those ridiculous road construction for a "safer" biking/walking environment? Instead of building the extra structure sticking out into the street/road, why can't they spend the money on painting the bike lane with green color like the City of Mountain View did?

12 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 7, 2018 at 11:00 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Hey, at least this plan is a bit cheaper than when they tried to make us pay $3100 for each bike under their last program.

But yes, this type of spending is ridiculous when the schools and the city keep pleading poverty.

Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 7, 2018 at 11:00 am

Annette is a registered user.

@Resident makes a good point. Even so, I hope this program works. The last one was a complete bust and, as I recall, super expensive (to the city) per ride b/c they were rarely used. Maybe readers should post what would deter them from using Motivate so that the City and Motivate can, to the extent possible, avoid those problems.

I am unlikely to use Motivate b/c I live here and would rather ride my own bike. If I commuted here by train and my workplace was a short bike ride away (but unreachable via one of the shuttles) I would use one IF I could keep it at my workplace all day w/o incurring fines or fees that would exceed the cost of a shared car ride.

8 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2018 at 1:08 pm

@Annette - The biggest problem with the Motivate bike share is you had to pick up the bike at one of their stations and there were no stations in most residential areas. The closest station to here in Midtown was 1 mile away at the Caltrain station, so I could not use the bike to get to or from the Caltrain station. Hopefully this new system will allow bicycles to be picked up in the neighborhoods so residents can actually use them to get to work or to the train station or run errands.

I do like that the new system is apparently entirely privately funded, so it mostly bypasses the city bureaucracy. I do hope the companies can create common sense rules for using the bikes, like letting people ride them from Palo Alto to areas outside the city like Google or Stanford. Also, I would like them to use a common sense payment method like Clipper cards instead of having to give your credit card information to every company.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2018 at 2:34 pm

I agree with Resident of Midtown above.

The previous system was of no use to my family. There were no bike stations anywhere near us and none near the places we would want to go.

Over the years we have used bikes a lot to get to school and other activities. Bikes often were damaged or stolen and it meant that we were short of a bike until repaired or a new purchase made. A bike share option would have been great for short term. Likewise, we have often had out of town guests who would have been happy to use a bike share to get to Caltrain, to go to a movie, etc. At present, we have used Uber for one way trips to various places that a bike share for that one way ride may have been useful.

Yes it is important for the City to ask who the potential ridership will be. If they want local residents to use them in any fashion then they have to be available in neighborhoods (say at parks) and also at places people want to go such as shopping/dining areas, movies, nearest Caltrain (San Antonio) and yes, schools. I would suggest that all secondary schools should have a bikeshare station.

8 people like this
Posted by Concerned Observer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 7, 2018 at 4:35 pm

Concerned Observer is a registered user.

This program will be an epic FAIL, just like the other one. Those who want to use bikes or scooters most likely have their own.

20 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2018 at 5:18 pm

@Taking a Lead,

[Portion removed.] The bike share program is really just an obtuse way to blame residents for the traffic congestion caused by city government enabled over-development.

You see, the residents are really to blame for the traffic congestion because they won't ride bikes. We even gave them a bike share program and they STILL won't ride bikes. The ingrates deserve to be stuck in traffic!

13 people like this
Posted by Read the Article
a resident of University South
on Mar 8, 2018 at 7:19 am

It is absolutely amazing how many people are posting critical comments, when they clearly have not read the article (or even taken one minute to research the topic). This is another example of how worthless these online forums are in a healthy political debate.

There is no/zero/nada/zilch public money going into this pilot program.

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

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