I think they will come out of this in better shape, but change is always hard.
In a sense, Maya Ford is just trying to get Houston Bike Share back in gear in the hope that it has a long ride.
“We are punching out of our weight class. I believe that, and the use shows that,” said Ford, chairwoman of the bike sharing nonprofit’s board and its interim executive director. “We have proven it can work. … Now it is time for everyone to invest.”
As bike sharing in the region remains in flux — half the stations were shuttered in November, and Metro officials approved a planned takeover of the service in January — the nonprofit’s workers and volunteers are trying to anticipate the road ahead. Much of that, Ford said, begins with an honest look at what is and is not working for customers of the kiosk-based rental bicycles and how that aligns with the region’s transportation needs.
“We are a startup and have operated as such,” she said. “We have grown too big too fast, and the (financial) numbers do not match up to what we can support.”
Though bike sharing in Houston has been popular among recreational riders, with stations at Hermann Park and Sabine Street at Buffalo Bayou Park drawing heavy use, the evolution will be for transportation, Ford said.
As the region grows, and people inside Loop 610 seek options for travel, bikes can fill in some of those gaps, she said, which could make transit more viable. For some, a one-way bike can get a rider to their destination or to a transit stop.
“We want bike share to be accessible for residents,” she said. “Not just for recreation, but everyday trips.”
The Metro partnership, she said, allows that and eventually could open up funding options the nonprofit did not have.
First, however, Ford said, the next month will be focused on making some tough decisions and evaluating how the system can change. Some bikes and kiosks are 7 to 10 years old, and the computer systems and the mechanical functions at the kiosks are becoming increasingly hard to maintain. Solar-powered stations, cheered for their green energy bona fides, floundered in the cloudy Houston winter and became unreliable.
For riders, the worst thing can be offline stations because they make trips unpredictable, and unpredictable trips mean someone does not try again, Ford said.
BCycle, which is a for-profit company that sells the system and bikes, is a large provider but not the only bike sharing system available. In Denver, BCycle left town in 2019, only to be replaced by Lyft, the ride hailing company. Houston, in fact, inherited many of the stations removed in Denver as its system expanded in the last three years.
That expansion, which led to a boom in use, also stretched the nonprofit thin in maintaining more bikes and more stations.
“The funding came to add stations, but that was our fatal flaw,” Ford said. “We were never compensated equitably for operations.”
See here and here for the background. As I said before, I like the partnership with Metro, and I think integrating B-Cycle into the transit system makes a lot of sense and should help manage its growth. But there should still be a place for stations that serve a more recreational crowd, like at Hermann Park and on Sabine Street. That enables B-Cycle to reach a wider audience and serves as advertising for its larger purpose. I remain optimistic about the future prospects for B-Cycle.