Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to extend a half-million dollar lifeline to the city’s nonprofit bike share program, he said Wednesday.
Turner said he will present City Council next week with a proposal to send funding to Houston Bike Share, which runs the BCycle program that offers bicycles for use from stations around the city.
“I am going to be recommending that we provide an additional half million in funding to transition them forward, because I don’t want the end-user to lose,” Turner said. “I think it would be a loss for the end-users, for others, if the service were to completely stop.”
Turner’s proposal essentially would keep on life support a transportation program that has fallen on hard times in recent years after going through a citywide growth spurt.
In an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle on Sunday, Neeraj Tandon and James Llamas, respectively chair and vice-chair of the Houston Bike Share board of directors, said they planned to shut down the program within the next two months after an 11-year run in Houston, citing a lack of funding.
Aided by a $4 million federal grant and additional equipment from Denver’s defunct BCycle program, expansion of the bike share program was fast and massive. The first five years included 40 new stations across downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Houston Bike Share tapped user revenue and sponsorships for day-to-day operations, with grant money and donations put toward expansion.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought a peak to ridership, with more than 300,000 trips in 2020. By 2022, Tandon and Llamas said they were operating more than 150 stations with ridership staying at approximately 250,000 annual rides.
Revenue did not keep up with the expansion, however, dropping from more than $2 million to $1.7 million between fiscal years 2021 and 2022, while expenses in 2022 outpaced revenue by more than $100,000.
The nonprofit closed half of its more than 150 stations.
Houston Bike Share issued a statement from Tandon late Wednesday: “We applaud the mayor’s statement today and appreciate his support for the continuity of bike share in the city of Houston. We will make effective use of the proposed funds to continue operation of a limited network. Meanwhile, we will continue to seek partners to maintain and reopen additional stations.”
The nonprofit thought it had found such a partner earlier this year when the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County board approved an agreement with Houston Bike Share in January to look at absorbing the program into its operation, but with greater focus on transit rather than recreation.
Metro subsequently put out a request for proposals for a new bike share program in May with a close date at the end of June. It is unclear how many proposals were received.
Thursday’s Metro board agenda includes an item to authorize the president and CEO to negotiate and execute a contract for a bike share system.
Metro did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
At-large Council member Sallie Alcorn said she strongly supported the mayor’s proposal, adding it was a shame the system has trimmed down the number of working stations. She said the Houston Chronicle op-ed should serve as a wake-up call for corporate donations.
“I really think the article was a good push for getting some corporate involvement. I mean, we’re the fourth-largest city in the country,” she said.
Joe Cutrufo, executive director of BikeHouston, said Turner’s proposal was in-line with the “transportation paradigm shift” the mayor has pushed forward over the last eight years.
“We’re glad to see the mayor putting emphasis on people getting around without a car,” Cutrufo said, adding, “Bike share is important. Without a bike share system, we become less multimodal.”
Cutrufo cautioned the measure would be a stopgap, and the injection of funding would not sustain the program without further investment.
“To have a reliable bike share system requires reliable sources of revenue,” he said. “In absence of a major corporate partner or a local transit system, bike share requires some level of (government) subsidy.”
Turner said he had spoken to both METRO and the city’s planning department about options for keeping the program alive.