Pithy Advice for the Person Who Ends Up Running San Francisco’s Bike Share Program

Remember back in the day, back when Clear Channel “promised” that they would provide a Velib-style bicycle sharing program for San Francisco? Let’s dig up a press release crowing all about that from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). Ah yes, from the “Transit Shelter Advertising and Maintenance Agreement” with Clear Channel Outdoor, Inc.:

“The agreement also requires Clear Channel to provide a Bicycle-Sharing Program, at the SFMTA’s request, details of which will be negotiated in an amendment to the Agreement.”

Details! Oh noes. Well Clear Channel looked at the details of running a bike share program and decided that they didn’t want to do it. Of course, they were not “required” to do Jack despite what the SFMTA thought. Isn’t that funny?

Now let’s imagine that you’re in charge of San Francisco’s bike-share program. What should you do? Let’s start with the good stuff and then worry about the details, the gritty nitty.

But first, let’s check in with Jessica Alba in Paris on a Velib. She’s in your corner:

All right, let’s go:

1. Junkets, junkets, junkets!

Try to get in as many “fact-finding missions” as possible early on. You’re the CEO, right? So, first thing you do is jet off to France, or D.C. or Montreal, bidness-class. Start a blog to post vacation photos of you on a Velib and complain about how you have to spend so much time away from your kids. Enjoy yourself, it’s going to go downhill from here.

2. Make the program as small as possible.

This is key. The bigger the program, the more headaches you’ll have. If you listen to people who tell you that you need to have a “critical mass” to be sustainable, you’ll have 5000 bikes on the streets – that means 5000 things to fret over every day. The Feds might give you millions to get started, but they’re not going to give you millions every year. As far as you’re concerned, a bike share program is a bike share program.

3. Think of a catchy name for your program.

I don’t know, BikeConnect (if Alex Tourk would license the name)? How about City BikeShare, CalBike, BikeCal, SFBike, BikeSF, FoggyBike, or Frisco a Go Go? I’m at a loss…

And now, decisions to be made:

1. Which bikes to use?

In the Parisian program, the heavy bikes come from Hungary and they cost $1000 per. This is both good and bad, because you want to have the bikes well-built in order to survive the rigors of heavy use, but you don’t want to lose too much money every time one disappears. I think it’d be impossible to charge $1000 to a San Francscan when the bike s/he just checked out got lifted by a thief, so you’re going to lose big bucks on theft. On the other hand, if you go the cheap route and use inexpensive mountain-type bikes, they’ll get stripped for parts with a quickness. You want bike thieves to think these are custom-made with no reuseable parts. Bixi bikes are cheaper (I hope) – perhaps they’d be a good starting point?

2. How much to charge users who don’t return bikes?

The Parisian government now subsidizes share program operator JC Decaux’s losses to the tune of millions of dollars per year. This is despite the fact that this company makes a mint from the 1600 advertising spaces given to them to pay for the program. If you are “too nice” to customers and only charge $50 for a bike they don’t return, then the customers won’t really care if their rental goes missing. On the other hand, if you try to charge the full replacement value, your customers won’t stand for it.

3. What about vandalism?

What about it – the little monsters are going to mess you up. They’re going to make it their business to make you want to go out of business. How will you react to the taggers who will paint over whatever they can? Now, program operators don’t have to deal with this issue in La Rochelle or Lyon, but in Paris, that’s a different story. Well guess what? We’re going to be just like Paris, having bikes with broken keels and lost keels. Deal with it. How about getting the City to cover all vandalism costs? That would help.

4. What about helmets?

You know, France has different attitudes about certain things. For example, they’ve got 58 nuclear panner plants and they’re building more, and they have a huge nuclear waste dump in Champagne, of all places. So, when you talk to the French about helmets for non-Tour-de-France-bike-riders, they don’t like it. Could San Francisco somehow rent out a smelly used helmet along with the bike? Doubtful. Could customers carry their own helmets? Sure, some of them would, but carrying around a helmet goes against the very nature of the whole program, which is designed to appeal to the general non-bike-riding public. In France, they tolerate deaths due to share program customers not having helmets. Will San Francisco?

5. What about hills?

Now let’s say your customer wants to go from a bike station at the top of Nob Hill down to Embarcadero Station – that’s a straight shot down California, it would take about five minutes, easy peasy. But who’s going to pay for the right to pedal a heavy bike back up to the top of Nob Hill? Should you give people who turn bikes in at the Nob Hill station more time? Certainly. Should you go ahead and just make that a free ride? Should you give these hardy souls a credit for future trips? Should you just pay jobless people to ride bikes uphill? Should you load up a truck and have an employee redistributing bikes all day long? Should you just not have a Nob Hill station? Don’t know.

There are no easy solutions for you. You’ll be made sport of in the pages of SFist and SFGate, San Francisco’s online newspaper. It’ll be endless. The Velib program works in Paris because of all that sweet, sweet street advertising money from all those signs. You won’t have access to that kind of dough, not in San Francisco.

Oh well, that’s why you’ll get paid the big bucks.

Good luck, Chuck.

After the jump, all the places you should junket to, before the cash runs out.

Bike sharing programs:

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