Bike share program could be in Downtown Boise by summer

The program is negotiating with Social Bicycles, which doesn’t require parking in designated hubs. Riders could be pedaling this summer.

sberg@idahostatesman.comFebruary 18, 2014 

In October 2012, Boise City Council members Elaine Clegg and David Eberle weren’t too sure about the Social Bicycles model.

Social Bicycles — SoBi for short — offered a different product than other bike-share contractors. Traditional systems require customers to check bikes in and out at stationary hubs. SoBi lets them lock up bikes anywhere and tracks the bikes through attached equipment.

Radical as it was, Social Bicycle’s concept wasn’t a hangup for Clegg and Eberle. Price wasn’t a problem either, since the Social Bicycles system is cheaper than traditional programs, much of whose cost is tied up in the stations.

But in 2012, there wasn’t much evidence that the New York City startup could deliver a good product. To be fair, there was no evidence Social Bicycles couldn’t deliver. There wasn’t much evidence of any kind because Social Bicycles was so new.

Both Clegg and Eberle told Boise Bike Share Executive Director Dave Fotsch they preferred a thoroughly tested system if the city was to put its money into a bike-share program.

Since that 2012 meeting, Social Bicycles has proved its concept. The company has launched, or is launching, programs in Hailey and eight other cities: Phoenix, Orlando, Tampa, San Francisco, Buffalo, N.Y., Hoboken, N.J., Providence, R.I., and Hamilton in Ontario, Canada.

“So yeah, they’re on a roll,” Fotsch said.

SOBI IN BOISE?

As recently as December, Boise Bike Share leaders were leaning toward a hub system. Now, Boise Bike Share is poised to become Social Bicycles’ newest client. A five-member panel made up of Fotsch, a transportation expert, a biking expert, an urban renewal commissioner and a Boise resident chose Social Bicycles over two competing bidders.

Boise Bike Share, a division of the Treasure Valley’s public transportation authority Valley Regional Transit, is now negotiating a contract with the company.

“I want to sign the contract this week if possible,” Fotsch said Monday.

If that happens, the bike share could launch by July, Fotsch said. It would have 140 bikes with 14 hubs, each of which would have space for 15 bikes. Three of the hubs would be walk-up kiosks with equipment that allows customers to check out bikes. The other 11 wouldn’t have that equipment; they would have colors and signs designating them as preferred stations where the bike-share program wants people to park so that other customers can find a bike easily.

After paying a daily, yearly or other membership, a customer could check out a bike and ride it free for as long as 60 minutes of rides per day. Keeping the bike longer would bring additional charges.

The customers could return the bike to a hub or lock it to any standard bike rack. The lock would then send a signal that showed the bike was available for a new user. A website and mobile apps would show people where those bikes are parked.

Fotsch said the bike-share program would encourage customers to park the bikes in the preferred hubs instead of leaving them elsewhere with incentives — possibly by charging additional fees for leaving the bikes away from the hubs or giving discounts on future rides for returning them to the hubs.

The program has enough money in the bank from a federal grant, the city of Boise and other sources to cover the program’s initial expected cost of $324,300, Fotsch said. Two other vendors submitted bids that were more expensive for half as many bikes.

Clegg said Monday she’s still not 100 percent sold on the Social Bicycles model. The city can’t stop Boise Bike Share’s negotiations or take back the $64,000 it gave the program. But Clegg said she feels a responsibility for making sure the money is spent in a way that benefits Boise as much as possible.

She worries that allowing customers to park bikes away from the hubs will make it harder for people to get a feel for the system and use it with confidence. Once the program is established with a base of customers who know how to use the bikes, Clegg said, adding more bikes without more hubs might make sense.

“I’m convinced that we have enough customers and a big enough city to make this work,” said Clegg, a longtime advocate for walkable and bikeable cities. “I’m not yet convinced that a model without kiosks at every station as an initial rollout is the right way to go.”

THE HAILEY EXPERIENCE

Hailey rolled out its Social Bicycles program last year. Its 5B Bikeshare began with 18 bikes. The program had about 50 regular users, said Kaz Thea, bike-pedestrian coordinator for Mountain Rides, the Sun Valley area’s public transportation agency. Members took a total of 560 rides during the season, with an average ride distance of about half a mile. Individual rides are capped at one hour.

Mountain Rides plans to expand 5B with another 22 bicycles this year, some of them in Ketchum.

Travis Jones, a real estate agent who lives in Hailey and works in Ketchum, said he used the program extensively last year and it worked like a charm. Sometimes, he said, he drove to work and road the bikes to go to lunch or run errands. He said it was usually easy to find bikes.

“It seems like people are always coming up with ideas for how (bike-share) might work, but this is the first one that actually seems to be effective,” Jones said.

One change he would like to see: rental periods as long as two days instead of capping them at an hour apiece. Sometimes, he said, you want to leave a bike outside a restaurant and know that no one will rent it if you’re inside longer than an hour.

BOISE’S TURN

Jones predicted Social Bicycles would thrive in Boise, partly because people commuting to work Downtown will use the bikes for short trips instead of driving.

People with memberships in Boise’s program would be able to use the program in Hailey or anywhere Social Bicycles operates, Thea said.

Besides the startup cost, Fotsch said, maintenance of each bike would cost about $25 per month. Each kiosk’s maintenance would cost $40 per month. That’s almost $45,000 a year for 140 bikes and three kiosks. On top of that, the bike share program will have maintenance costs for Fotsch himself, a service manager, one or two seasonal employees who maintain the bikes and move them around to optimal locations, as well as a customer service specialist and administrative assistant. There also will be costs for insurance, marketing, tools, a van to tow bikes from place to place and, possibly, a repair shop.

In all, Fotsch expects Boise Bike Share’s ongoing operations to cost around $400,000 a year.

He expects membership and user fees to cover more than half that figure.

He wants the rest to come from private businesses that buy advertising space on the hubs and bikes, so that no more taxpayer money is used on the program. He said he’s in negotiations with a company interested in being the title sponsor. He wouldn’t say which company.

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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