FutureStructure

After Problems with City Bike Share Program, Baltimore Turns to Lime and Bird

The city has entered into agreements to allow Bird and Lime to each place 1,000 dockless bikes or scooters on Baltimore streets.

by Colin Campbell, Talia Richman, The Baltimore Sun / August 16, 2018
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(TNS) — Baltimore has shut down its problem-plagued bike share program after less than two years and entered into a pilot program with two firms that offer dockless scooters and bikes, Mayor Catherine Pugh said Wednesday.

The city has entered into agreements to allow Bird, which launched a pilot fleet of more than 60 dockless, electric scooters in the city this summer, and Lime, which offers dockless bicycles and scooters, to each place 1,000 scooters or bikes on the streets.

The bikes and scooters will come at no cost to the city, unlike the now-canceled program, which cost the city a total of $3.2 million, according to the Department of Transportation.

The move, which Pugh announced at her weekly news conference, ends the city’s relationship with Bewegen Technologies, a Canadian firm, and Corps Logistics, its Westport-based maintenance subcontractor. Neither responded to a request for comment Wednesday.

That program launched in 2016, promising an eventual 500 bicycles at 50 docking stations around the city. But it quickly drew the ire of riders as bicycles disappeared across the system.

It temporarily shut down last September to allow the vendors to catch up with a maintenance backlog that left more bikes out of service than on the streets. Some bikes returned to the street a month later, but problems remained with the app, and the system never met its expansion goals.

Pugh hailed the new dockless scooters and bikes Wednesday as "the wave of the future.” She rode a Bird scooter outside City Hall.

Both the bike share program and the first Bird scooters debuted around the Inner Harbor, but the bikes and scooters won’t be limited to those areas.

To ensure the dockless program is equitable, Bird and Lime will be required to offer discounts to low-income customers and place a quarter of the bikes and scooters in neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of households earn less than $25,000.

“We've identified neighborhoods that … are low-income and where the use is really important in terms of alternative transportation," city transportation director Michelle Pourciau said. "You'll be seeing them all over the city.”

Those neighborhoods are: Poppleton/The Terraces/Hollins Market, Oldtown/Middle East, Cherry Hill, Greenmount East, Southwest Baltimore, Southern Park Heights, Madison/East End, Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park, Pimlico/Arlington/Hilltop, Penn North/Reservoir Hill, Clifton-Berea, Brooklyn/Curtis Bay/Hawkins Point, Greater Charles Village/Barclay and Washington Village/Pigtown.

Both Lime and Bird use smart phone apps to unlock and pay for rides. Lime also allows people to pay cash without smartphones, a city transportation spokesman said.

The transportation department will use the six-month pilot period to evaluate the effectiveness of the dockless models and develop future regulations for the companies, officials said.

A spokesman for Pugh declined to share copies of the agreements with Bird and Lime. He said they had not been finalized or approved by the Board of Estimates.

Bikemore, Baltimore’s bicycling advocacy group, welcomed the move.

“The existing Baltimore Bike Share system has significant shortcomings, most of all its inability to expand to serve neighborhoods in Baltimore that need transportation the most,” the organization said in a statement. “Baltimore’s pilot program is designed to place more bikes and more scooters in more neighborhoods than ever before.”

Liz Cornish, Bikemore’s executive director, said allowing Bird and Lime to provide bikes and scooters outside of a city contract will give the city a better system — without risking taxpayer dollars.

“Any risk associated with operation is placed on the vendor, not the city,” Cornish said. “These companies build loss into their model and operate at a level of sophistication the city simply can't, given their current resource constraints.”

When problems first emerged with the Baltimore Bike Share program, officials blamed widespread, persistent shortages on vandalism and theft. But Pourciau said Wednesday that wasn’t why the city ended the program.

The department said the program was shuttered because it “is not able to meet the growing demand for rental bikes.”

Scott Thurston, 51, works from home in Mount Vernon. He said he canceled his monthly Baltimore Bike Share membership after six months. He blamed “broken equipment, lack of availability” and a “really bad” app that did not properly track the number of bicycles at each docking station.

Thurston said he supported the decision to ditch that program for Bird and Lime. He said he rode Bird scooters nearly every day last month until he was injured when he hit a curb and crashed on one near the farmer’s market under the Jones Falls Expressway.

As a rider, his concerns about the scooters are the same as with bike share: availability and maintenance.

Another former Baltimore Bike Share member, Brian Seel, grew so frustrated by the shortage of bikes — and by officials’ insistence that they were simply in use or being moved from station to station — that he rode around to all the stations last summer to count the bikes. All four of them.

When he began noticing a shortage again this year, he did it again. He found that two out of five bicycles were missing from the system and that the app was losing accuracy. He compiled his findings in an article for the Baltimore Fishbowl.

Seel is a “huge fan” of Bird scooters, and hopes the partnership with the city is successful.

But he’s worried Bewegen “left a bad taste in [riders’] mouths” that could make them hesitant to try other bike or scooter sharing services.

“They were doing a lot of harm to the bike scene in Baltimore,” Seel said. “That doesn’t do us any favors for getting people to use alternate transportation.”

Bird, which launched last year, has expanded rapidly around the country — and sometimes ran afoul of local regulations. The Santa Monica, Calif., company said it was thrilled to advance its partnership with Baltimore through the pilot program.

"Bird has been helping Baltimore meet its ambitious goals of reducing carbon emissions and cutting car traffic, while helping more people across the city get where they need to go,” the company said in a statement.

Bird antagonized some in city government when it launched its fleet here in July because it did not seek a license or approval to operate.

Jon Laria, chairman of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advocacy Commission, said it was to officials’ credit that they recognized the scooters’ popularity, drew up the agreement and adopted it into their transportation plans.

“Now you add Lime — we really will have a significant fleet of scooters and bikes that will lead people to see the benefits of getting around on them,” said Laria, a partner at the Ballard Spahr law firm.

Lime also launched last year, and has spread rapidly. It now provides bikes in at least 44 U.S. cities, more than a dozen college campuses and several European cities.

Maggie Gendron, Lime’s director of strategic development, said the company sees Baltimore as a good fit for its mission.

She believes the scooters and bikes will “help people in transit deserts” who struggle to access convenient transportation options.

The company hopes to scale up to having 1,000 of each form of vehicle: bikes and scooters. Lime is still working with the city to finalize its permit.

“We are ready to operate in two weeks,” Gendron said.

City Councilman Eric Costello said the Baltimore Bike Share system suffered from persistent problems.

"I'm just thankful we're moving forward quickly,” he said.

Eventually, Pourciau said, the city will assess whether dockless and docked vehicles can "coexist."

"But right now," she said, "we need to look at something different."

©2018 The Baltimore Sun Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.