Marin bike share attracts sponsors without a station in the ground

Bay Area Bike Share. Image by Andrew Nash, on Flickr

Bay Area Bike Share. Image by Andrew Nash, on Flickr

Over a year ago I reported that Marin was pondering a bike share program of its own, whether as a branch of Bay Area Bike Share (BABS) or as its own independent system. Though the initial study (performed by Alta) had some problems with stop location, overall TAM was optimistic and continued to press forward.

As it turns out, at least when it came to sponsorship, they weren’t optimistic enough.

The 2013 study predicted that the initial system, a pilot area between Larkspur Ferry Terminal and downtown San Rafael, would raise just $10,000 worth of private sponsorships, enough to express support but not enough to add serious funding to the system. As of June, the system – without a station in existence – has $247,000 worth of sponsorship pledges.

The sponsors aren’t just the typical bike shops or downtown businesses either. Bon Air Center, the huge Greenbrae strip mall, pledged $20,000, enough for a station of its own. Marin General Hospital pledged $40,000, enough for two stations. United Markets and Woodlands Markets both pledged another $20,000, and Emeryville’s Clif Bar pledged $40,000. Others pledged, too, but this gives a picture of the kind of support received.

This level of enthusiasm is a great sign for the proposed system. While Marin County Bike Share likely won’t ever get the level of daily trips per bike as Minneapolis or DC, it lends hope that bike-hungry Marin will outperform Alta’s fairly low use estimates. Such a concrete show of local support, too, will likely be helpful now that TAM has grant applications in for regional, state, and federal funding for the system.

Update: If you’re really curious about what’s going on with bike share, you can read from PDF-page 199 of the last TAM Board agenda packet.

A fragmented BABS is bad for the region

UPDATE: Bay Area Bike Share has confirmed that you can, indeed, dock bikes between any participating city. It’s unclear why Peter Colijn was unable to dock his bike.

UPDATED UPDATE: Well, the BABS website has been updated saying that San Francisco and the rest of the system are separate, in that you can’t bike from SF to other parts of the system, nor vice versa. But if you wanted to, say, bike from San Jose to Mountain View, you could dock your bike.

It took less than a week for an intrepid bicyclist to decide it was time to ride a Bay Area Bike Share (BABS) bike from San Francisco to Mountain View. Given our region’s strong corps of Bicyclists, it was only a matter of time, really.

But when the bicyclist, Peter Colijn, got to Mountain View, he couldn’t dock his bike. It seems BABS has set up not just different clusters of stations, but different systems altogether, where bikes from different clusters won’t dock at another cluster’s stations. This does not bode well for BABS.

As BABS expands, the clusters will get close enough that users could easily ride from one to the other.  By splitting what purports to be a unified system into chunks, riders won’t be able to do what it clearly seems like they should be able to do: ride across city lines. It will make rebalancing more difficult in the future, too, as the bikes won’t be interchangeable with one another.

There is a simpler reason why this is a bad idea: people will do dumb and unusual things with BABS, and splitting the system up will exacerbate the consequences.

As a long-time observer of Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare (CaBi) program, which uses the same technology as BABS, I can say that I’ve seen just about everything. People take out their bikes for the day, lock them to bike racks, take them on the Metro, bring them into the office, and all sorts of other things you definitely shouldn’t do with a bike share bike. (CaBi has assured me and others in DC that they are very willing to cut overage fees, especially for bikes out more than 24 hours, when people didn’t understand the system.)

The same thing will happen in the San Francisco Bay Area. People will take the bikes on Caltrain, do long-distance group rides, and other things that will cost them a great deal in overage charges, often unwittingly. If users can’t dock their bikes in different cities, they’ll get double pain. Not only will they get hit with overage fees, but they’ll be stranded with the wrong bike in the wrong area.

I suspect BABS separated the systems to make rebalancing easier. There’s no way for a cluster’s bikes to migrate away from it, so each city keeps its “fair share” of bikes. But this doesn’t account for users’ creativity or lack of knowledge about the system.

BABS should give people allowance to do things outside how they want users to ideally use their system. Let the hardcore cyclists do their marathon runs and brag about them on Strava – it’s free publicity! Let the inexperienced and the tourist take the bikes on Caltrain or ride them from San Jose to Mountain View. It would be easier to pick up bikes that people ride to the “wrong” place on BABS’ own time than to force innocent users to travel all the way back to wherever they came from. It would certainly beat the bad the publicity of an angry customer who, quite understandably, thought that all BABS stations were the same.

I have an email out to BAAQMD, BABS’ manager, to find out which clusters are interoperable and which aren’t. A comment on Cyclicious says Palo Alto and Mountain View bikes are interoperable, but I don’t know anything beyond that. See update above.

Bike share for the ferry terminals

Last week, Bay area Bike Share (BABS) launched to some fanfare. Caltrain commuters and residents in a few neighborhoods along the Peninsula and in San Francisco can now bike to or from transit, making the first and last mile a bit easier.

Calls for a broader bike share program to serve the East Bay, more Peninsula neighborhoods, and the whole of San Francisco have risen ever since the limited scope of the project was announced.

Advocates should add Vallejo and Larkspur-San Rafael to their list. As the outer ends of the Bay Area’s ferry service, they desperately need some way to bridge that last mile. Bike share is how to do it.

Why ferries?

A chronic problem with ferry service in the Bay Area is the lack of bi-directional demand. Though many San Franciscans work in Marin and Solano, it’s tough to get reliable transit service to their employment centers. Golden Gate Transit buses depart hourly heading north, even in the morning commute hour. SolTrans buses don’t even offer reverse-commute service.

While there is ferry service to Larkspur and Vallejo, there aren’t many jobs within walking distance of the terminals. Driving, then, is often the only viable mode, closing off those jobs available from car-less San Franciscans.

BABS stations could change that.

In Vallejo, the principal would be similar to the Caltrain satellite systems, like in Palo Alto. Scatter a few stations around the downtown, with a large one at the ferry terminal, and you’ve created is an easy way for commuters to head to or from the ferry terminal without the need to drive or to bring their own bike.

In Larkspur, the ferry terminal’s distance from downtown San Rafael, the county’s employment hub, means a more creative solution is needed.

A large BABS station at the ferry terminal, another in Greenbrae, and a few scattered around downtown San Rafael would allow reverse-commuters to use it as their last mile and draw San Rafael into the mindset of San Franciscans as a place to go.

As a bonus, both the Vallejo and Larkspur-San Rafael systems would boost ferry access. In Marin especially, it would boost access to the ferry for SF-bound riders and overcome the terminal’s poor transit service.

And, for both systems, it would improve access to biking in areas that could use some alternative transportation.

New bike share plan suitably cautious

Capital Bike Share (Ballston)

Capital Bike Share (Ballston) by Arlington County, on Flickr

Last Thursday, TAM released a cautiously optimistic report (PDF) on implementing bike sharing in Marin. The preliminary report’s caution is well-warranted, as the county’s infrastructure and urban form are far different from bike share pioneers Paris and Washington, DC. If Marin can thread the needle and create a quality bike share program, it could be a pioneer for other suburbs.

Introduction to bike share

Bike share, the system examined by TAM, is a bicycle rental/transit hybrid. Bikes are stored in stations, like the one pictured at right, which are scattered through the area. Users purchase a membership for a certain amount of time, usually just a day, week, month, or year. While a member, users can pick up a bike from any station and drop it off at any other station. If done within a certain time, like 30 minutes, the trip is free. If the trip goes over that time limit, a fee is levied for every subsequent half-hour.

The point isn’t to check out a bike for a round-trip but rather for each short leg of a short journey. Want to get from downtown MillValley to Whole Foods? Check out a bike, ride it to Whole Foods, dock it there and do your shopping. After you’re done, check out another bike from the station and ride it back downtown or wherever you want to go next.

I’ve been a member of the Washington, DC, system for most of the time it’s been active. Capital Bikeshare, or CaBi, is used by tourists to get between museums on the National Mall, commuters to get to work, revelers to get around after the Metro system closes, and for general trips around town. I’ve used it for all those purposes and it works great for all of them.

The key is to have bicycles and docks always available at a given station, and to have stations conveniently located. There’s nothing worse than arriving at a station to find the bikes are all gone or to find there’s nowhere to dock your bike, especially if there’s nowhere nearby that does have a bike or dock.

The company contracted to operate the system will “rebalance” the bikes from one station to the other. In DC, the operator pays a fee if any station is empty or full for more than two hours. Users know where bikes, docks, and stations are by looking at screens on the stations or with a smartphone app.

The Marin system

Bike share phases 1, 2, and 3

Bike share phases 1, 2, and 3

TAM wants a bike share system to serve primarily the commuting public, to solve what transit planners call the Last Mile Problem. When a rider hops off a bus, they’re at a location that might a ways away from their final destination. To get to the final destination, riders typically walk, though bikes are a common sight on Marin’s bus fleet. With bike share, a rider doesn’t need to bring their own bike.

With that in mind, the first stations would be focused on moving people from downtowns to ferry terminals and transit centers. Twelve stations, one in most of the downtowns and one at the two ferry terminals, would provide a way to get commuters around the county. Subsequent phases would make more stations around activity centers, which would make the system more like CaBi.

Total cost would be around $720,000 for the first phase and $2.2 million for full build-out.

Obstacles

A major barrier to the success of the bike share system will be the paucity of quality bike facilities between downtowns and activity centers. Though it is possible to ride through most of Marin, it isn’t always pleasant, and the safest route is sometimes far out of the way.

Between most downtown pairs lies a few miles of bike-hostile arterial roads. Though most have safer parallel routes, those parallel routes don’t access the businesses that grew up along the arterial. Since bike share is a utility rather than leisure system, the separation of businesses and bike routes diminishes just how much utility bikers can get from the system. Given how low density Marin’s origins and destinations already are, the last thing we need is to diminish separate bikes from businesses.

Marin’s demographics are another potential obstacle. The foundation of most bike share systems is the 25-34 age group. Though they’ve been growing in Marin, the group is a fraction of the size it is in DC or San Francisco. Planners want to harness the 35-45 age group instead, though they’ve been reticent about adopting bike share elsewhere.

Opportunities

The bike share report seems to underestimate the power of tourists in Marin. Particularly in Sausalito, a major driver of use will be tourists. DC’s system was never designed for tourists, but once the system opened on the National Mall the bikes became ubiquitous. Sausalito already gets thousands of tourists. If Marin’s system is integrated with San Francisco’s quite delayed plan, I suspect a huge number of tourists and day trippers will use bike share to hang out around Sausalito and Tiburon. As well, commuters to the City will be able to use their bike share membership at home and for their commute, taking away some of the demand for bike space on ferries and buses.

Bike share is its own best advertiser. Once a small system is up and running, demand springs up elsewhere. People, even transit-savvy New Yorkers, often don’t understand what bike share does before it’s active, but once it is people know it and love it. Richmond, Novato, and maybe even the closer-in West Marin villages like Bolinas and Stinson will want in on the action.

As a nifty indirect effect, bike share puts people in touch with the infrastructure in their communities. A street looks different from a bike. What feels like a narrow lane behind a windshield can feel like a broad avenue on a bike, and what feels slow in a car feels fast to a biker. Advocacy for better bicycling facilities can come from a well-used bike share system.

Oddities

The report isn’t without its problems. The draft plan doesn’t adjust the projected level of usage over time which, frankly, doesn’t make sense. People will use the system more as more stations become available and as people get used to the idea of bike share. It looks like they copied the final station proximity numbers into Phase 1 and Phase 2 but kept the introductory usage numbers for each phase. It would be good to get that sorted out.

The first phase includes only one station in Novato, a small loner in the middle of downtown more than an hour from the next nearest station. Though it is census area with the most bike commuters in the county (6.1 percent!), it doesn’t make sense to add only one station. Riders who arrive and find the station full will be stranded in the middle of nowhere with the clock ticking on their bike.  Stations in Tiburon and Mill Valley are similarly isolated.

There are missed opportunities for new stations in San Anselmo and Mill Valley. In San Anselmo, the commercial centers along Center, namely Yolanda Station and Lansdale Station, should be quality sites for infill. Miller Avenue at La Goma and Tam High should score higher as places for expansion.

It is a true shame that College of Marin doesn’t get a station until Phase 2. Young people form the core of any bike share program. Leaving out a major destination for them until later in the program is foolish in the extreme. One of the more isolated stations – Novato or Tiburon – should be placed there instead.

National context

Bike share is sweeping the nation. It is transforming cities across the country and will soon reach the Bay Area. Marin should not get swept up in the trends for their own sake, and I’m glad the county is proceeding with caution. The next phase of planning is another baby step – $25,000 to find sponsors and study the potential subscriber base, which will put more flesh on the report’s bones.

If Marin’s system does pan out, it will mean bike share is far more flexible than the high-density systems that launched the wave. That means suburbs like Marin, from Surrey, BC, to Staten Island, NY, will have an example of a functional system to hold up as an example. The good news for Marin, then, would mean good news for the country.

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