Zach Davis was on the road listening to the radio last month when a story came on about the growing world of local “bike share” programs. Millions of riders have hopped on in cycling-friendly communities all over the country.
“I was sitting in my car feeling a little embarrassed we didn’t have one, because bikes are a great way to move people in an engaging way,” says Davis, a member of Santa Cruz’s Downtown Commission and a co-owner of eateries including the Penny Ice Creamery.
But at the following commission meeting a couple of days later, the advisory body heard a presentation on a possible bike-share program, one that could launch as early as January. Davis now feels excited that, because the city has come to the trend a little late, local leaders will be able to piggyback on ideas that have worked elsewhere.
The whole process started over the summer when J. Guevara, the city’s economic development manager, took a cold call from a bike share vendor asking if Santa Cruz might be interested in starting a program of its own that would allow customers to rent a bike right off the street by the hour, day, week or month.
Guevara remembers telling the salesperson, “Yeah, we just received a gold bicycle-friendly award, moving up from silver, and we’ve got our eye on platinum. And we’re developing section seven of the rail trail, and we are a great market with between two and three million visitors, as well as a resident population that really embraces and loves cycling.”
Both the Downtown Commission and the Transportation and Public Works Commission unanimously recommended that the city continue moving forward with the proposal last week, after asking questions about customer service, safety, liability and upkeep.
One transportation commissioner, Philip Boutelle, remarked that the League of American Bicyclists, which gave the city its recent gold certification for biking, provided a report card on how the city can make it up to platinum. And while the bike share made the list of recommendations, Boutelle suggested that city leaders should keep an eye on other items, like conducting speed studies and looking for ways to calm traffic.
Commissioner Peggy Dolgenos asked how the vendors handle helmets, or if they require them.
Transportation Planner Claire Fliesler responded that bike share vendors heavily recommend using helmets, but don’t require them because they can be “a barrier to entry” for new riders. Vendors in some places, though, have partnered with bike shops, offering discounts of 15 to 30 percent off helmets. And a study from the San Jose-based Mineta Institute found that no one has died from a shared-bike crash in the United States. It also found that people have been less likely to be injured on a shared bike than their own—either because the bikes aren’t built to go as fast or because people are more careful on a ride they aren’t familiar with.
When it comes to the contract, Fliesler says the city will pick a company that offers “customer service 24/7 and that it would be a pleasant experience from beginning to end.” She adds that the bikes are very difficult to steal, strip or vandalize and that customers generally aren’t held liable for any missing bikes.
Fliesler and Guevara have entertained bids from three companies—Zagster, Social Bicycles and BCycle—with offers ranging from free to “expensive.”
“The zero-cost vendor is the best-performing vendor, and is very attracted to our market and is motivated to capture it,” Guevara told the transportation commission.
Generally, Guevara explains, there are two kinds of bike share programs. The first is what planners call a “hub-based” style, where people lock up the bike to a designated bike rack. Customers pay at a pay station, which automatically unlocks one of the bikes from the hub. This is what most people probably picture when they think of bike shares, as it has already taken off in metropolitan areas like New York City, which launched its Citi Bike program three years ago. The problem is that installing all those hubs and pay stands gets expensive.
The newer approach planners have been using is sometimes called the “smart bike” model. It uses normal bike racks and lets users unlock the bike with their phone. Afterward, they can lock up the bike wherever they would like. The approach has proven cheaper and more flexible, Guevara says, making it more enticing, as well as the preferred model for smaller markets like Santa Cruz.
Guevara plans to take the plan to the City Council in November, and with the council’s approval, the city manager’s office would be able to negotiate a contract. He hopes to have a bike-share system running at full speed by the summertime. To do that, the company would plan to launch with about 50 bikes and 10 bike racks in early 2017. Commissioners say that one day they’d love to see the program spread into other parts of the county, perhaps along the rail corridor and its accompanying trail.
The city may provide some basic infrastructure, like racks, but Guevara says he wants the vendor’s employees to take care of repairing bikes, moving them around and keeping an eye on the fleet. In order to help support the program financially, he plans to pitch possible sponsors, including health-care companies like Kaiser Permanente, Dignity Health and Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
Each bike comes with its own GPS tracking device, making it easy to track where cyclists go.
Right now, to calculate bicycle traffic, Fliesler stands on a street corner with a clicker counting bikes, a method that she’s found is time-consuming and not particularly effective.
“We will be able to get a depth and density of data on where people are riding, what routes people are riding, where they are parking,” she says. “And we’ll be able to install bike parking, install bike infrastructure, and do a number of things to help these routes really shine.”