Palo Alto kicked off its newest bike- and scooter-share experiment Monday night, when the City Council approved a one-year pilot program that puts private-sector providers firmly in the saddle.
By a 7-2 vote, with Karen Holman and Lydia Kou dissenting, the council approved a program that effectively invites all vendors in the growing fields of bike- and scooter-sharing to bring their services to Palo Alto. This is a sharp turn from the city's prior program, which centered on a partnership between the city and the company Motivate, which operates the regional Bay Area Bike Share. That 37-bike program was discontinued in fall 2016 because of low ridership (the bikes were used an average of 0.17 times per day).
While the city's first attempt fizzled, the second one never took off. Last year, the city was negotiating a deal to expand the program to 350 bikes and to equip each bike with a GPS. That program, which would have required an investment of $1 million from the city, died when negotiations collapsed.
This time, the city plans to limit both its role and its investment in bike sharing. The rules that the council approved allow any operator in the quickly expanding field to acquire permits for their ride-sharing program, with no investment of public funds. City officials plan to largely sit back, monitor results, enforce rules and then determine in a year whether the program is worth continuing.
According to planning staff, the primary appeal of this sort of program is two-fold: more bikes and less public investment. A report from planners notes that initially, "Many cities experienced issues with the durability of the bicycles used; bicycles were parked haphazardly on sidewalks; and no city permits were secured for operations."
"However, over the course of the last year, several cities have enacted guidelines to address those concerns, and bike share vendors are now working directly with cities to address concerns and legitimize their operations," a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment states.
In approving the program, the council strayed from the recommendations of staff and the council's own Policy and Services Committee, which suggested that the total number of bikes be limited to 700 (electric scooters would not have a limit). The council instead decided Monday to not have any limits at all.
Councilman Adrian Fine, who made the proposal to remove the cap, argued that capping the program at 700 bikes could restrict the number of vendors. A successful bike-share program, he said, should encourage competition.
He also acknowledged that having too many bikes could lead to encroachment issues and proposed giving city staff the authority to cap the bike count if these issues crop up -- a proposal that won the support of the council majority.
Councilman Greg Scharff was among those who said that rather than having an "artificial cap," the city should have strict performance standards. If companies aren't meeting these standards, Scharff said, the city can always pull their permits.
"There's no indication that 700 would overburden the city in any way," Scharff said.
Holman and Kou both said they preferred the original recommendation. Others agreed that the limit isn't necessary, provided that staff has the authority to step in if the city's sidewalks end up littered with bikes.
The council moved to remove the cap after it was urged to do so by Katie Stevens, representing the bike-share company ofo, one of the vendors looking to set up shop in Palo Alto.
"We'd like the opportunity to bring out bikes to serve the city of Palo Alto based on operational services and not on the number of bikes," said Stevens, whose company is one of several that had reached out to Palo Alto, according to transportation staff.
Stevens also asked the council to remove a requirement that operators provide data on location usage, types of bikes, fuel levels and times that each bike was used. Councilman Greg Tanaka and Fine moved to do just that, though their proposal fell by a 2-7 vote.
The council did, however, strip away the proposed requirement that at least 50 percent of the bikes in the new system be located downtown or near California Avenue. They also specified that City Manager James Keene and planning staff will have the authority to reconsider this issue, based on the city's experiences with the new program.
The new guidelines prohibit the parking of bikes and scooters in ways that block pedestrian areas, access to buildings, bike racks or news racks. They also cannot be parked in loading zones, disabled zones, entryways and driveways.
The guidelines also require operators to have a minimum fleet of 100 bicycles or e-scooters, to have a staffed operation within the San Francisco Bay Area and to maintain a 24-hour customer-service phone number and a multilingual website. They will also be required to report the aggregated breakdown of customers by gender and age.
The pilot program will be in place until March 31, 2019.