Streetsblog Editorial: Don’t Leave Bike Share Customers Spinning

New branding, lawsuits, pleas from Muni's union--let's think first about transit, bike, and scooter customers who just want to get where they're going

Out with Ford GoBikes, in with a new Lyft-branded bikeshare. Photo: Lyft
Out with Ford GoBikes, in with a new Lyft-branded bikeshare. Photo: Lyft

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Muni had another serious breakdown this morning. A stuck train forced the agency to single-track between Van Ness and Castro, causing significant delays. And thanks to San Francisco’s caps and other limitations on bike-sharing, customers in West Portal and many other locations on the far side of the Twin Peaks tunnel were left with few alternatives to waiting in the record-breaking heat.

SFMTA is finally planning to raise the cap to allow 11,000 shared bikes in the city. But Lyft is fighting that, claiming it violates the contract Motivate (the Lyft subsidiary that runs the Bay Area’s bike-share system) signed with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, promising exclusive rights to bike-share until 2025. “As we will explain to the court, the agreement between Motivate and the City was about a docked bike-share system,” John Coté, communications director for San Francisco’s city attorney, told Forbes magazine in a statement about the suit. “It does not give Lyft the right to a monopoly on bike-sharing in San Francisco. Lyft can seek a permit for dockless bikes on equal footing with everyone else.”

Now Local 250 of the Transport Workers Union of America (which represents Muni operators) is also trying to keep out the competition, siding with Lyft and claiming that JUMP and other potential competitors engage in unfair labor practices. “Numerous articles have documented these companies’ use of independent contractors to charge and re-balance vehicles for little pay and no benefits,” wrote Roger Morenco, president of the local, in a June 5 letter to SFMTA.

Fair enough, but Lyft uses gig drivers too. Isn’t the right answer to work to organize Lyft and Uber and its bike-share subsidiary, rather than try to lock out all competition? Morenco also argues that the city’s official bike-share system is superior because “GoBike [now re-branded as “Bay Wheels”] is well connected to other transit networks, including Muni, with many of the busiest bike-share stations co-located at transit stops.”

Tell that to the commuters in the photo below, trapped at West Portal this morning, with no bike-share stations anywhere in the area.

A struck train in the subway at Deboce lead to yet another morning of delays, seen here at West Portal. Photo: TKTKTK
A struck train in the subway at Duboce leads to yet another morning of delays, seen here at West Portal. Photo: Jesus Lozano

Lyft did a media blitz yesterday and over the weekend, letting the press know about the Bay Wheels rebrand and that they’re rolling out a new e-bike (seen in the lead picture). “Riders in San Jose will see the bikes starting June 11–and Lyft is working to add them to their fleets in San Francisco and the East Bay later this month,” added the company in its release.

That’s welcome news for riders who miss the electric GoBikes, pulled last April because of a brake issue. But it’s no consolation to customers who suffered in this morning’s Muni meltdown–or in the many other areas that have waited years but still don’t have access to bike-share. Lyft’s release also indicates that their new e-bikes will have at least some ability to be returned outside of a dock, so maybe that will be of some help in the future.

Either way, GPS and smartphone technology long ago rendered dock-based bike-share obsolete. San Francisco needs to lift the caps as soon as possible. Caps on mobility options, combined with Bay Area politics that still keep the official bike-share system docks away from so much of the city, just push more people into automobiles.

It’s bad enough that Muni is so unreliable and the city is failing its Vision Zero targets. It would be unforgivable to continue hamstringing bike-sharing as an alternative for people just trying to get from A to B.

  • I’m kinda frowning on Lyft’s new bikeshare revamp of the Ford GoBike. The bikes originally can only be docked, but can also be locked to bike racks and meters like Jump?

    The reason why I liked GoBike was knowing that I can go to any dock and a high percentage of the time, a bike was available (well except after they pulled the e-bikes for brake problems). It’s predictable, rather than Jump’s method of you look on a map and gamble if there’s a bike nearby. Having Lyft make their bikes also be able to attach to meters and bike racks could mean lower odds of getting a bike at a dock, and Lyft would have to spend more time hunting bikes around the city to re-balance the system.

  • I was in San Francisco this weekend, over much of the city. I did not see a Ford GoBike hub with more than one bike in it the entire time. Docked is a solution for some situations, and totally useless for dispersed use.

  • mx

    Bravo Roger! I’ve been a Bay Area Bike Share/GoBike/Bay Wheels member since day 1, and I recently turned off the automatic renewal on my membership, which expires next year. The service has been terrible lately, and while I understand that they’re stuck in a holding pattern until the new bikes are ready, that’s of little help to me when every station remotely near me is empty. Add in the lawsuit, which seeks to reduce transportation options, and I’m pretty disappointed as a customer right now. The city needs to start to take an active role in managing micromobility services (if not running their own through a non-profit model), setting performance standards and regulating (if not subsidizing) pricing (Jump and Skip have both had substantial price increases after their permits were issued) to ensure that they work as transportation and not novelties. That should be part of the bargain in exchange for permits.

    But you hit the nail on the head when you tie it back to Muni’s reliability woes. I cringe at the thought of taking Muni Metro nowadays because it’s just so often unusable, including major failures during both commute periods today. I’ve been trapped down there so many times that even when the service is working fine, I have little desire to chance another ride, and come away from every “next J in 47 minutes” encounter with a renewed vow to not return. Many of my trips are <2 mi trips along the Muni Metro/BART service area, and I've tried to replace transit with bike share as much as possible for these, because bike share gets me where I'm going quickly and reliably, while our transit simply doesn't work. I frankly resent that my options at the moment are biking on an unsafe Market St or waiting endlessly for a subway that drives me to madness, but that's where we are right now.

    The e-bikes on the other hand, don't discount that part of the attraction is how damn fun they are. I took a Jump bike out for a few hours on Sunday (I didn't get hit with the price increase many people are seeing, at least yet) for a combined Sunday Streets cruise and Sunset errand trip, and had a blast.

  • xplosneer

    “Let’s think first about … customers who just want to get where they’re going”

    Yes, thank you. Better customer service -> More people not driving.

  • Angelo Cucuzza

    Lyft bikeshare workers in SanFran are unionized!
    Jump workers are not and difficult to organize as the independent contractor model is being used by Uber.
    You have no idea the chaos fully dockless systems would cause in and around the city. You will regret this!

  • Sean

    Docks would make a lot of sense for e-bikes if they ran electricity to them. Sounds like a no-brainer.

  • John Murphy

    unless we just really adopt it and have as many docks as we have street parking spots in SF

  • 94110

    The docks have been GoBike’s killer feature. Dockless is convenient for ending a ride, but a nightmare for starting one.

    This is going to do three things, neither is necessarily bad but it’s worth thinking about:

    1. A full dock is no longer full. Expect to see sidewalks near popular docks with bikes locked to anything and everything.

    2. Popular destinations that have pushed back or been skipped will start to see heavy traffic areas filled with bikes (Haight Ashbury, Pier 39)

    3. The outer perimeter of the service area will start to see a lot of bikes parked.

    These will likely cause chaos and pushback. The weird thing is the best solution to all of them would be to add more docks. Hopefully that’s what happens.

  • Prinzrob

    Almost all of the GoBike/BayWheels docks run off solar and aren’t wired to the grid, and doing so would increase the cost and limit the possible installation locations even further. I think having some stations act as charging points might be useful, and this is what Jump is going in some markets like Sacramento, but swappable batteries as GoBike/BayWheels has been using for a while and Jump is just now starting to get into seems to be a much more efficient and cost effective solution.

  • Prinzrob

    I could see them implementing an incentive/credit program for bringing bikes back to docks, as exists already with some systems like Biketown in Portland, hopefully something more substantial than the Bike Angels points program.

  • Sean

    Just the main stations at regional hubs or locations that happen to be cheaper to run conduit to of course. I would also recommend passing on the labor savings to make it cheaper to return bikes to the plugged in location.

  • Ethan

    There shouldn’t be so few bikes in an area that it’s time consuming to find one. But there also shouldn’t be so many bikes in an area that we get situations Chinese cities found themselves in with sidewalks overflowing with bikes. There should be a middle ground between those situations. That’s what the SFMTA is trying to find by raising the cap to 11,000. We’ll see if that’s enough.

  • Ethan

    You mean we have zero examples from dozens of other cities around the world and are incapable of learning from what works and doesn’t in them?

  • Ethan

    Almost all the docks are mere feet from overhead or underground power. Hooking them up will cost some money, but no more than it costs to hook up a powered public toilet, and SF has those.

  • Ethan

    The cap on how many bikes are allowed in the city is being raised to 11,000. We’ll see if that’s enough and what problems emerge. This won’t be the uncontrolled insanity some other cities experienced.

  • KOinSF

    I disagree, but that may be due to where I live. I much prefer the dockless option, so I can ride as long as I wish and leave it where I end my ride, not having to find a dock at both ends of my trip, nor do I have to time my trip.

    I think the docked bikes are great to get from BART to home, IF you have a dock nearby.

  • KOinSF

    WE have one now, and it hardly chaos. Though I refuse to UBER, so I WANT electric dockless bikes all over the city thank you very much.

  • p_chazz

    And thanks to San Francisco’s caps and other limitations on bike-sharing, customers in West Portal and many other locations on the far side of the Twin Peaks tunnel were left with few alternatives to waiting in the record-breaking heat.

    Like anyone would ride a bike from from West Portal to downtown in record-breaking heat to get to work.

  • mx

    With the heavy classic GoBike models, I agree, but it works with an e-bike. I rode a Jump bike (before the price increase—this would be pretty expensive with the new prices) from downtown out to the Great Highway for Sunday Streets, down to West Portal for an errand, over to Irving for dumplings, and back downtown on Sunday when it was 90, and with the nice breeze, it was really quite pleasant and fun.