After failing to get traction in its prior attempts, Palo Alto's plan to bring bike-share programs to the city's masses is about to move into a new direction.
By a unanimous vote, the City Council's Policy and Services Committee agreed Tuesday night to launch a new pilot program that would allow various bike-share companies to bring their services to local streets with little city involvement. The new approach is a sharp departure from City Hall's prior attempts to introduce bike-share -- ill-fated ventures that focused on creating a partnership with one major bike-share company and investing significant city funding in infrastructure.
Palo Alto's first bike-share program, which was part of a larger effort known as Bay Area Bike Share, was discontinued in fall 2016 after several years of relatively meager usage. According to city data, the 37 bikes that were part of the program were rented an average of 0.17 times per day -- well below the established standard of one ride per day.
Undaunted, the city explored earlier this year a significant expansion of the program, which would now feature 350 bikes equipped with GPS technology. That program, which would have cost the city more than $1 million in upfront costs, never launched.
Now, having failed to tap into the local market for bike-share services, the council is preparing to let the market come to Palo Alto. The new one-year pilot program would create a regulatory framework for bike-share companies, allowing vendors to receive permits and potentially compete for riders in the same geographical areas.
In explaining the change, transportation officials are citing successful experiences that other cities had with different approaches. Chris Corrao, a transportation planner with the city of Palo Alto, said Seattle and South San Francisco had recently experimented with a six-month program of this sort, with promising results.
The ridership levels in Seattle, he said, far exceeded the city's projections and the problems were minimal. And according to a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment, the South San Francisco program is also achieving some traction, with about 400 bikes currently on the street generating about 500 trips per day.
These days, vendors typically use "smart bikes" with GPS systems, which make it easy for users to find bikes with phone apps and allow for more flexibility in dropping them off. The city's prior effort, by contrast, had traditional bikes that had to be returned to a bike station. The city's report cites companies including Social Bicycles, LimeBike, Spin and MoBike as vendors that now use smart bikes.
Corrao told the Policy and Services Committee that he has been in contact with various companies that can potentially apply for permits in Palo Alto and said there is "definitely an interest in being here in large numbers."
The speed with which the bike-share trend is taking off in other cities has taken the transportation industry by surprise, Corrao said.
"The bike-share industry was turned upside down and, literally, in a matter of weeks, several bike-share vendors have emerged, in a privately funded way where the private entity would provide bicycles for free (to the city) -- a large number of bicycles -- and operate the business similar to the approach of Lyft or Uber," Corrao said.
Under Palo Alto's new regulatory program, each vendor would be required to provide at least 100 bikes, with the total number of bikes (not including e-bikes) capped at 700 to reduce chance of unused bikes cluttering sidewalks.
Given that the approach is so different from what the city has done in the past, Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said staff has decided to roll this out on a pilot basis and then re-evaluate it in a year. With the new approach, the risk and cost is all on the vendors.
"If it turns into a big mess and bikes are all over the people's lawns, we'll just pull the plug," Gitelman said.
The council committee had few reservations about trying the new approach, which Vice Mayor Liz Kniss described as a "huge departure" from what the city has been doing in the past. Councilman Tom DuBois called the pilot program "interesting" and supported the overall cap on bikes. Committee Chair Cory Wolbach agreed and noted that since these services are likely to reach Palo Alto anyway, it would make sense to regulate them.
"Staff's regulating approach is to steer this emerging market in the direction to make it more beneficial," Wolbach said.