When Vancouver officially chose a company to provide its bike-share system two years ago, public optimism about this popular new system of mass locomotion was at a high. New York City and Chicago were about to kick off their systems, while London and Paris were steaming along. Since then, Vancouver, along with the rest of the bike-share world, has been on a roller-coaster ride.
One of the continent’s major suppliers of bikes and docks, Montreal’s Public Bike System Company, or Bixi, went into bankruptcy protection. That had a huge impact on the company Vancouver had chosen—Alta Bicycle Share of Portland, Oregon, which had provided the New York and Chicago systems, along with those in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
At the same time, even some of the most successful bike-share systems have discovered that maintaining corporate sponsorships—a key element to subsidizing the systems—can be a challenge. A particularly harsh winter has raised the question of whether programs such as New York City’s Citibike will be sustainable.
But the leaders at Alta, which morphed over the last five years from a small planning and design company to the continent’s major comprehensive provider of bike-share planning, management, and systems, says the industry is headed for even more growth—and Vancouver will get its system soon.
“We are pretty scrappy, determined, and constantly improving our model,” says Mia Birk, president of Alta Bicycle Share, which now has 500 employees. “And we’ve only scratched the surface of what bike-share will likely become.”
In late January, Alta announced that it has formed a new partnership with 8D Technologies to provide the software needed for bike-share systems it plans to launch in 2014. (8DT was the original provider for Bixi software before Bixi decided to try to develop its own, as it partnered with Alta to get the contracts for big U.S. cities.)
Another group is equally optimistic about the future of bike-share: experts who have been studying this mushrooming form of alternative transit, which now extends to almost three dozen cities in North America.
“Clearly, [Bixi’s] problems are going to have some impact,” says Susan Shaheen, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center. “But a long-term effect seems unlikely. There are all kinds of vendors and operators doing systems every day. The momentum around this is growing.”
As in any new industry, there’s a shake-out period, says Shaheen, who did a comprehensive study of the emerging bike-share sector in 2012. “The business model hasn’t been totally worked out. But I get the sense that they are starting to understand where the revenue streams are.”
As well, said Shaheen, at least some cities are beginning to understand that bike-share systems aren’t going to make money and they’re not intended to make money.
“This is an extension of a public transit network. It’s not as simple as ‘Are you in the black or are you not?’ ” Just as transit systems require a subsidy to operate, so does this new part of the transit system.
Birk, a former planner with the city of Portland, says it has been a discovery for everyone that setting up bike-share systems is more challenging than it looks on the surface. “It’s like launching a transit system. It’s very complex.”
Her company provides the full palette of services, from planning where the docks should go to getting permits to finding sponsors to setting up crews to do the labor-intensive maintenance and redistribution needed (bikes always end up piling up at some docks at certain times of the day, so someone has to come with a truck and move them around).
That kind of turnkey operation is one that larger cities have been attracted to. (Smaller cities or big cities with smaller systems have tended to opt for a nonprofit operator, responsible for finding sponsors and grants, that contracts with one or more companies to provide the bikes, docks, software, and payment collection.)
The signs of health in the explosively growing bike-share industry are that new cities are coming on board (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, among about a dozen, are due to announce who their providers will be) and that everyone is adjusting to the Bixi implosion.
Back in Vancouver, at least some city councillors are still enthusiastic about the bike-share model, in spite of the long wait (the city first started talking about putting in a bike-share system in 2008) and the blowback from political opponents.
“I still believe it’s a positive addition to the transportation network,” says Raymond Louie, a city councillor who has used and appreciated bike-share networks in several other cities.
Vancouver has had more challenges than most cities hurling themselves into the bike-share wave.
Because of provincial laws, it has had to ask Alta to figure out a way to provide a helmet-dispensing system, unlike almost every other bike-share city in the world.
Alta is still hoping to get its promised bike-share system—with an initial start of 1,500 bikes and 125 stations—into Vancouver before the end of 2014.
A final sign of health in the business: it is producing new competitors. Four top executives who left Alta in recent months have formed a new company in Portland—Bicycle Transit—that is offering its services to the many cities still interested in bike-share. That company expects to make announcements this year about new customers.