Mayor Sylvester Turner’s promised $500,000 lifeline to Houston Bike Share passed through City Council Wednesday, ensuring that financially struggling Houston BCycle will continue limited service for another year.
What the bike-share landscape in Houston will look like by then remains up for discussion, thanks to uncertainty fueled by Houston Bike Share’s finances and the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County’s plan to launch its own bike-share program next year.
A recent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle by Houston Bike Share Chairman Neeraj Tandon and Vice Chairman James Llamas painted a simple picture: Houston Bike Share was in dire financial straits and expected to shut down Houston BCycle within two months. Houston Bike Share is the nonprofit that runs Houston BCycle, the city’s current bike-share service.
The response was swift. Days later, Turner indicated that he would approach City Council about providing more than half a million dollars to Houston BCycle to keep operations sustained.
In all, City Council approved $540,430 – $500,000 from the city’s general fund and $40,430 from council members Abbie Kamin and Robert Gallegos for stations in their respective districts. It should be enough to keep the existing network operating for about a year, Tandon said this week. Houston BCycle’s network has shrunk in the past 12 months, from more than 150 stations to around 60. Houston Bike Share has shed staffing and increased prices to keep the program operational.
“We will work out the terms, and I will assign this to Margaret Wallace Brown, the director of planning, to negotiate with planning on the best way to stand up these 60 stations that currently exist as Metro works to stand up its own program,” Turner said Wednesday.
Metro revealed its plan at a committee meeting last week. The Metro board is set to vote Thursday to allow officials to negotiate a potential five-year contract worth up to $10.5 million with PBSC Urban Solutions, a Canadian bike-share vendor that supplies equipment to successful programs all over North America.
“My focus is on the end user, the customer, the Houstonian, the people who are visiting our city, and these are things that they like to have,” Turner said. “It is a service that I think we should offer.”
In the aftermath of the op-ed, Tandon said he and Llamas had more contact from the Houston community than they could keep up with.
“We’re still kind of getting back to everybody,” he said, adding that he wished he had made the nonprofit’s financial issues public sooner.
“I think it’s been the turning point we were looking for,” Tandon said. “We thought it was coming sooner, I’ll leave it at that. We thought it was coming six months ago.”
Six months ago was a conversation with Metro that culminated with what Houston Bike Share thought was an agreement in January to “pass the torch” of bike-share to Metro. As the nonprofit explored options moving forward, its leaders settled on the idea that bike-sharing should be a public utility.
“Long term, we actually needed to go away and Metro needed to run this or a public entity needed to run this,” Tandon said.
The agreement from Metro’s side was that it would spend six-to-nine months evaluating its options and deciding how best to pursue bike-share.
“They directly told me, ‘We’re working on that, we’re working on that,’” Tandon said of his interactions with Metro. “Each time I had a conversation like that, it became backing off a little bit at a time.”
Months after the January conversation, Metro’s Chief Financial Officer George Fotinos told Houston Bike Share the transit agency would be going in a different direction.
“That was the end of the conversation with Metro. We didn’t hear from them again for a few months,” Tandon said.
A Metro spokesperson declined comment for this story before Thursday’s board meeting where negotiation of the contract with PBSC will be authorized.
Metro put out a request for proposals for its own bike-share program in May, with bids due back at the end of June. BCycle was one of four vendors who submitted a bid.
In announcing its plan to move forward with PBSC, Metro said the company initially will bring in 140 e-bikes, 20 grid-connected and solar-ready charging stations, and 200 docking points at launch; those numbers could swell to 700 bikes and 100 charging stations in five years. The contract also includes a subcontractor to take care of daily operational tasks, such as bike and station maintenance and manning a 24/7 call center.
“I think (Metro’s) plan is great,” Tandon said. “It’s a plan that we were looking at doing if only we had the ability to ask for $10 million and have someone vote on it the next week.”
During Metro’s presentation, officials mentioned Houston BCycle, but showed little interest in folding in the existing operations into the agency’s plan, saying it would cost millions to update and repair its equipment.
As a result, Houston could be set up to have two separate bike-share programs with no interconnectivity.
Tandon said the rollout of Metro’s bike-share system could be beneficial to Houston Bike Share if planned correctly. He defined success by the amount of bike-share coverage the city has, and he sees opportunities to share the work that already has been done.
One idea is to hand off some of BCycle’s existing sites to Metro. Houston BCycle has more than 100 stations near Metro transit stations and stops.
Depending on Metro’s plan, Tandon said BCycle could hand off 20 stations a year, matching the agency’s yearly expansion plan.
He said he would like to see Houston Bike Share and Houston BCycle’s staff folded into Metro’s operation, providing expertise and keeping local jobs in the Second Ward.
“Yes, it’s feasible,” Tandon said, while admitting, “It’s going to take a level of communication we haven’t seen yet.”