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Urban Planning

Will Bay Area Bike Share expand on its downtown success?

Isabel Angell
The Bay Area Bike Share station in front of San Francisco City Hall.

The success of Bay Area Bike Share depends on one place: downtown San Francisco. Back in August, the program. made a well-calculated gamble and stuck half the bikes in an area covering downtown, the Financial District, and South of Market. Basically, if bike share doesn’t work there, it won’t work in the Bay Area.
Heath Maddox oversees Bay Area Bike Share for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

“I’d call it a very successful start,” he says “It’s something I’ve been working on for three years now and it’s really gratifying.”

The numbers back up his claim. Compare Bay Area Bike Share with Washington DC’s Capital Bikeshare, which started a few years back. Over the first two months, Capital Bikeshare averaged about two rides per bike, per day, which Maddox says is pretty standard.

“And in San Francisco,” he says, “we're seeing more like 2.4 to 2.5 rides per bike per day, which is fantastic.”

How Bay Area Bike Share Works

To get on a bike, you need to buy a pass, which gives you unlimited rides under half an hour. Some people were upset by the pricing scheme – any ride longer than 30 minutes will rack up some big fees pretty quickly.

But the program has generally avoided the pitfalls of other cities, like software glitches or too many bikes at one station and not enough at another.

In fact, most complaints with Bay Area Bike Share focus on one thing: it’s not big enough.

In San Francisco, Bay Area Bike Share has just 350 bikes. All of the bikes are concentrated in the downtown area, spreading out into Civic Center, South of Market, and along the waterfront. So if you want to go to other places in the city, like the Bayview or to the Mission or Sunset, you can't do that.

Liz Combs lives in the Mission and doesn’t come downtown very often, but she’s checking out the bike share dock on Market near the Montgomery BART station.

“I was just looking to see if it was in my neighborhood, and I would definitely use it if it was expanded,” she said.

Combs says she wouldn’t commit to an annual pass until it came to the Mission, but, “I’d consider trying it for a day or two.”

For Combs to try out bike sharing, she’d have to shell out nine dollars for a 24-hour pass, or $22 for three days. So far, those short-term versions have proven a lot more popular than the annual passes, which cost $88.

A big criticism of bike share program in general is that they don’t offer helmets with the bikeS. But data from across the world shows that bike share users are actually less likely to get into accidents than the average cyclist. There are a few possible reasons for that, like bikes are purposefully heavy and clunky so they can’t go very fast. Also, officials have reasoned that bike share users tend to be less familiar with biking around a city and are therefore more cautious.

Comparisons with New York

The Bay Area isn’t the only place that got a brand new bike share last summer. New York City launched its Citi Bike in June, a couple months before the Bay Area Bike Share launched.

“I think right now it's fair to say that NYC's bike share program is a huge success in terms of raw numbers,” says Hinds, a reporter for public radio station WNYC and Transportation Nation. “The city’s department of transportation projected something like 60,000 members in the program’s first year, and right now five months into the program, we're at over 93,000 annual members.”

In comparison, Bay Area Bike Share has netted just over three thousand annual members so far. But New York City had a couple of things going for it to pump up its numbers.

First, it started with almost ten times as many bikes. And second, it snagged a sponsor: Citi Bank. That’s where Citi Bike gets its name. The financial giant paid about $40 million for that privilege.

“There was a huge outcry about it,” says Hinds. “Especially since of course this is the city that launched Occupy Wall Street. And there were systems defacings happening, in which people put up stickers that said S****y Bike instead of Citi Bike. But overall, this has been a big win for Citi Bank, which got a pretty big, I think, bang for its buck.”

Where will Bay Area Bike Share roll from here?

So here’s the big question in San Francisco: where will bike sharing go next? The city is slated to get 150 more bikes next year. The SFMTA’s Heath Maddox says they’ll go in the Upper Market and Mission Districts.

“[Those areas] are just as suitable as the initial area, no doubt about it. We're hearing from people, anecdotally, that they would like it more if it went to areas where lived and played and less where they worked,” Maddox says.

Plus, the Upper Market and Mission connect to the existing area for Bay Area Bike Share. Beyond that, Maddox has a few ideas.

“If I had $20-30 million,” he says, “then I would say we could roll them out on a blanket basis on the northeast quadrant of the city and it would work very well.”

That would include places like the Marina, Pacific Heights, and Nob Hill, where just over 40 percent of San Franciscans live.

Maddox says it could go even further than that – the city could sustain up to three thousand bikes, and the entire region about ten thousand. But for that to happen, the Bay Area might need it’s own corporate sponsor.

Google bikes, anyone?

Officials are looking into it.


To request a bike sharing dock in your San Francisco neighborhood, go to sfbikeshare.sftma.com.

To listen to this story, click on the audio link above