Sounds pretty good, actually.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County is expected to contract with a Canadian operator that will provide up to 700 e-bikes and 100 charging stations as the agency embarks on the creation of its own bike-share program.
The proposed three-year contract, with options for two additional years, valued at as much as $10.5 million, is scheduled to be considered by Metro’s board of directors next week.
The move could seal the fate of struggling Houston BCycle, the bike share operator that launched in 2012, and quickly expanded to more than 150 docking stations across the city. Riders pay one-time rental fees to use bicycles and return them to any docking station, or can purchase memberships for more frequent use.
BCycle – not Houston Bike Share – was among four bidders seeking a contract with Metro. Houston Bike Share is a nonprofit that operates the Houston BCycle bike-share program. BCycle was not one of the top two bidders chosen for oral presentations by Metro’s technical committee.
The transit agency’s Public Safety, Customer Service and Operations Committee voted Thursday in support of a recommendation to put a proposal for negotiations with Quebec-based PBSC Urban Solutions before Metro’s full board of directors. The company, according to BikeHouston executive director Joe Cutrufo, provides equipment for some of North America’s most established bike-share programs in Montreal, New York City and Chicago.
“The equipment is head and shoulders above BCycle’s equipment,” Cutrufo said,
PBSC operates in 31 cities across 15 countries, including 12 cities in the United States.
The company initially will bring in 140 e-bikes, 20 grid-connected and solar-ready charging stations, and 200 docking points at launch, with plans to add to those numbers every year of the potential five-year contract. The contract also includes Shift Transit as a subcontractor to take care of daily operational tasks, such as bike and station maintenance and manning a 24/7 call center.
The focus for the new program will be on seamless integration into Metro’s current services. The new program will be a part of the agency’s Trip app for planning travel and will be a part of the future fare collection system set to launch next summer.
“From the get-go, we’ve agreed it’s a good idea to have bike share be integrated with the transportation system because bike share is public transportation,” Cutrufo said.
In January, Houston Bike Share thought it had an agreement with Metro in place for the transit agency to absorb Houston Bcycle’s operations. From Metro’s perspective, the agreement was for a six-month period to evaluate the current state of operations. In May, the agency put out a request for proposals for implementing a new bike-share system.
Metro Chief Financial Officer George Fotinos said BCycle’s existing operation does not align with Metro’s multimodal model. He suggested, however, that both Houston BCycle and Metro’s program could operate in Houston.
According to Fotinos, the technology and asset base offered by BCycle were out of line with where Metro wants to go. Metro staff estimated it would take about $10 million to bring the BCycle equipment up to its standards.
The aim is to use cycling either to connect to places within biking distance or to access frequent transit, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said. Though costs are not finalized, the plan would be to charge a price for the bikes similar to the buses and trains, where a person pays $1.25 for a three-hour block of time.
“If you are starting with a bike and going to a bus, that is one trip,” Lambert said.
If approved, the proposed system would be similar to the BCycle system for users, but with noticeable differences. The app and payment system will be different and integrated with Metro’s fare system.
Hopes of a partnership between Metro and the nonprofit were dashed, Metro officials said, when it became clear absorbing the nonprofit was not worth the cost or hassle.
“The current infrastructure and model on the ground does not align with Metro’s vision,” said George Fotinos, the agency’s chief financial officer.
The aging bikes and kiosks were also a factor, Fotinos said.
Locations where someone can find a bike are also likely to look very different. BCycle, especially outside the central business district, is popular but largely recreational, with stations in parks and shopping areas. Metro’s aim is to link potential riders to transit with convenient bike pickup and dropoff locations, meaning bikes at major transit hubs. Dozens of the existing stations are not in prime locations for Metro, while other spots might be ideal.
Asked if some current BCycle stations could be removed and replaced with the new Metro kiosks, Lambert said “maybe,” noting that officials are still researching where to place the first wave of bikes.
Unlike BCycle, which has both conventional and electric bikes, all of the Metro system will be e-bikes, pedal assisted to make riding them less strenuous.
Starting with 20 stations and 140 e-bikes, the plan includes adding another 20 stations and 140 bikes annually. If extended to the full five-year contract, that would mean 100 stations and 700 bikes – slightly smaller than the full build-out of the BCycle system.
The transit-centric system, meanwhile, does not stop BCycle from carving out its own niche and remaining operational in some way.
“Both operating in the space is no sin,” Fotinos said. “We are fully promoting all multi-modal uses… One does not preclude the other.”
I look forward to seeing the formal presentation next week. There are lots of questions, like where the initial stations and first expansion stations will be, what the cost will be and whether there will be an annual pass option like what B-Cycle has, whether there might be a discounted fare if one just uses the bike, and so on. Maybe this can help better define what B-Cycle might be going forward, if it can get the funding. Maybe PBSC should be invited to bid on a contract for the rest of the city’s system. I take Joe Cutrufo’s word that their product is superior to B-Cycle’s seriously, so let’s keep all options on the table.