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Bay Area Bike Share Needs A Hero

Loren Mooney | October 14, 2013 | Lifestyle Story City Life

By now perhaps you have forgotten all about the Bay Area Bike Share Program. You probably have. BABS, as I prefer to call it (much catchier), launched with a little flutter in late August with 700 bikes dispersed in the Bay Area, 350 of them at stations clustered in a sliver of downtown San Francisco.

There have been a few, somewhat contradictory news stories since: Streetsblog’s “Bay Area Bike Share Off to Underwhelming Start, Usage Data Shows” in mid-September was followed, a week later, by the Examiner’s “Bay Area Bike Share off to a fast start.”

For the most part, the program's rollout has been ho-hum. This is because the program so far is…pretty ho-hum. Full disclosure: I am a biased bike person who used to be the editor of Bicycling magazine and joined the Bike Coalition as my first act when I moved to San Francisco almost three years ago. So I criticize BABS only because I believe (hope!) that it could be a superstar in our city, a paragon of eco-forward transportation in a place that is the national paragon of sustainability. But for now, BABS is more community theater than Broadway. Or, put another way, more Minneapolis than New York City.

Stats from the first month of BABS ridership should be released in the next few weeks, and they almost certainly will be interpreted along a spectrum from resounding success to catastrophic failure. From rough early numbers given to me by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), which manages the program, each bike is being used an average of just over once per day. There are somewhere around 2,500 annual members, and nearly twice that many people have bought a casual, one- to three-day pass (thank you, America’s Cup visitors).

The glass-is-full camp might point to sturdy and steadily growing programs such as Minneapolis/St. Paul’s Nice Ride, which after three years has 1,500 bikes and a usage average of about once per day. The glass-is-catastrophically-empty camp might point to New York: At five months old, it now averages seven rides per day for each Citi-logoed bike in its 6,000-strong fleet.

Whatever your perspective, it’s clear that the program has of yet failed to weave its way into the fabric of life in San Francisco. It only covers a tiny portion of town. It lacks sizzle. We haven’t read stories about how locals have taken to the transit system as an effective way to get home late at night, after BART stops running. (In case you haven’t heard, in New York, “Drunk Citi Biking is Officially a ‘Trend’”.) We haven’t even heard lighthearted tales about enterprising tech dudes taking a BABS bike from the Civic Center station and pedaling it 47 miles to Mountain View via Skyline Drive, the way this guy did. ($52 in late fees!)

So what does BABS need? BABS needs a sponsor. A big, headline sponsor, not just to flood San Francisco with the 3,000 bikes that experts say would take the program big time, but also to use its marketing muscle to push for the program. Imagine a San Francisco with BABS on every corner, in the neighborhoods where most people live. Imagine going out to the ballpark, or to SFJazz, or just to dinner in the Mission, with no time sunk into circling for a parking spot.

It’s not easy, I know. It takes a ton of money to run a bike share program, just like any other transit system. (Infrastructure is expensive, and maintenance costs include the crazily inefficient task of guys in trucks driving around at the end of each day to redistribute some of the bikes from full stations to empty ones.) Citibank reportedly paid $41 million for a five-year sponsorship of Citi Bike. And every program dreams of being self-sustaining with user fees, but it hasn’t happened anywhere yet in this country.

How much would a corporate sponsorship bring to BABS? It wouldn't be Citi Bike money. But even at half the dollars, that could be $20 million for BABS to spruce itself up. It could increase the fleet nearly tenfold, add dozens of more stations, and finally promote the damn thing.

As it is, BABS has secured $11.2 million in public money for startup and first year costs (for perspective, that is enough to go to Mike’s Bikes and buy 22,400 San Franciscans a brand new $500 bike). The program is currently working on a first round of expansion, which will boost usage some, and also engaged in what seems to be a long and cumbersome process of asking for money. “We are very close to issuing the RFP [request for proposal] for asset valuation which is the first step in seeking sponsorships,” program manager Karen Schkolnick of the BAAQMD said in a late-September e-mail. “Once we complete the asset valuation we will be able to issue an RFP for sponsorship. We anticipate this occurring in early 2014.”

Once those RFPs finally do go out, will any of San Francisco’s flashy and flush corporations want to take a chance with such a small-time player? I hope so. All BABS needs is one big break.

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