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Bay Area, Meet Your New Bike Share System. Her Name Is BABS.

Loren Mooney | August 28, 2013 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Starting this Thursday, 350 sea-foam green bikes will be turned loose on the streets of San Francisco when the region’s Bay Area Bike Share program launches. What’s that? Glad you asked. We have the answers.

Bay Area Bike Share? What a lame name!
True, it is not catchy. “Hey, let’s take a Bike Share bike,” is a mouthful. New Yorkers ride Citi bikes (it’s a corporate shill, but still, it rolls off the tongue). In Minneapolis it’s a Nice Ride. In D.C., you take a CaBi (for Capital Bikeshare). Hmm, if only there were a San Francisco tradition of acronym-izing transit systems…. Voila, BABS. How you gonna to get to the Giants game? I’m taking BABS. BABS, and you’re there! Oh wait. But none of the successful systems to date have been inexpensive. And BABS is seeking corporate sponsorship to keep the program going, which means BABS may not be BABS for long. It could be AirB&Bike, or YelpWheels, or Facebike.

But couldn't it just be San Francisco Bike Share? SFBS has a certain ring to it.
It’s called Bay Area Bike Share because it’s a regional system, not just a city system—the first of its kind in the country. In addition to 350 bikes (and 30 racks) in San Francisco, there will be 350 more bikes (and 35 racks) in San Jose, Redwood City, Palo Alto, and Mountain View. Still, it’ll be biggest and most concentrated in San Francisco, and self-centered urbanites will probably refer to it as San Francisco’s bike share.

Why go regional?
The average Bay Area commute is 16 miles one way, which means that an awful lot of us are crossing city or even county lines to get to and from work. Within the SF-San Jose corridor, there are 27 independent transit operators, with separate operating schedules and often different pay passes (but Clipper fixed all that, right?). “This is one program designed to be seamless to the user—there is one membership for use anywhere in the Bay Area,” says Karen Schkolnick, who has perhaps the longest job title in the known universe (Air Quality Program Manager, Strategic Incentives, of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District) but is basically the woman herding all the local groups to Bike Share happen.

So can I take one on Caltrain?
You don’t take a bike from one town to another. They are meant to be used locally for very short trips (30 minutes or less). But, theoretically, you could ride a San Francisco Bike Share bike to the 4th and King Caltrain station, rack it, then take Caltrain to Redwood City, then ride another bike from the station to a rack near your office. Potentially fewer bikes on Caltrain.

Doesn’t everyone in San Francisco already have a bike?
A lot of people do, but they may still use BABS. “We absolutely think that bike owners will see it as a convenient way to not worry about their bike during the day,” says Schkolnick. No lock, no tucking your bike into the corner of your cubicle. It could happen. You should especially consider using BABS if 1) You have a long walk from the train to your downtown office (biking can be 3 times faster than walking—so that 25 minute walk could shrink to single digits and give you an extra half hour of life each day), or 2) you have ever had that soul sucking feeling of being stuck on the Mission 14 bus, watching people walk on the sidewalks faster than you’re moving.

Why are there no stations anywhere that people actually live?
It's true, whole swaths of San Francisco are left out of the system at this point, including popular, relatively hill-free areas like the Mission and Hayes Valley. “Eventually, we want blanket coverage of a good portion of the city,” says Heath Maddox, a senior planner with the SFMTA, but until then, first priority in positioning stations was to put racks near the regional transit hubs (Caltrain, BART, and the ferries). “And of course I dropped one at my office,” he says, only half joking. From there, he says, they planted stations “maintaining an appropriate density” using the very successful Paris system as a benchmark. “This means a station every two to three blocks,” he says, close enough that, if you’re trying to return a bike but the rack is full, it’s not a large inconvenience to go to the next one. The SFMTA also prioritized locations near bikeways to encourage traffic along certain corridors—Market Street, the Embarcadero, Howard Street, 2nd Street. To start, the whole program covers only 1 ¾ to 2 square miles.

Can these things actually go up hills without ripping your legs off?
They do have 7 speeds. On the flipside, they are 44 pounds. Based on our preview test ride, it’s more accurate to say that one could pedal BABS up a slope, rather than a hill as we know it. Once the program expands, there will be incidents of walking BABS up hills. Then again, who among us on two wheels in San Francisco hasn’t at some point teetered over to the sidewalk, dismounted, and walked up a steep?

What are the expansion plans?
Schkolnick says that program goals are modest to start, and funding-dependent. The goal is, by early 2014, to have 50 stations and 500 bikes in San Francisco (with 1,000 bikes system-wide), and as many as 3,000 bikes at 300 stations in San Francisco (as many as 5,000 to 10,000 system-wide) in the next 5 to 10 years.

What’s BABS going to cost me, anyway?
As the Bike Share website says, only members can use the bikes. Annual membership is $88, 3-day is $22, and 24-hour costs $9. For that, you get unlimited free rides of 30-minutes or less. (There are obnoxious overtime fees designed to prevent people from hogging the bikes, or riding them over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, not that you’d want to on the 44-pound tank.)

And who’s footing the bill for the system?
In the broader sense, you are, whether you use it or not. BABS is launching with $11.2 million of public funding (including $7.21 in federal funds for projects to reduce greenhouse gasses, $2.8 million from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the balance from local agencies) to run for one year. That’s a lot of dough, no two ways about it.

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