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Austin Transit Is Banking on Bikes to Improve Mobility

Capital Metro in Austin, Texas, is set to become the lead agency for a new bike-share program, possibly signaling a trend placing micro-mobility squarely in the hands of public transit.

a bike in motion in a bike lane
Bike-share operations in Austin, Texas, are set to move firmly under the region’s transit umbrella, ushering in a move to transition Capital Metro from a transit provider to a “mobility” service, officials say.

The city and CapMetro are teaming up to operate the city’s bike-share program, rebranding it as MetroBike. The move will go live in the fall, integrating bike-share into CapMetro’s app-payment system.

“We really wanted the community to start seeing the bike-share program in Austin as just another offering of the transit agency,” said Chad Ballentine, vice president for Demand Response and Innovative Mobility at CapMetro, in a webinar Tuesday with the Shared-Use Mobility Center.

Austin currently owns the fleet of roughly 500 standard bikes and 200 e-bikes. The city has partnered with the nonprofit Austin BCycle to operate the bike-share system since 2013. The new agreement will set up a partnership among the city, Austin BCycle and CapMetro to place the bike-share operation within the CapMetro system, with the transit provider becoming the lead agency, Ballentine explained.

“We all got together and said, maybe it makes more sense for the bike-share program for the city to be living with Capital Metro,” said Ballentine.

Transit will take on the oversight role and make sure the bikes are maintained, the batteries are charged, and other operational details. It’s still not entirely clear whether the ownership of the bikes will transfer to CapMetro. Final approval is expected to go before the CapMetro board of directors next month.

By becoming a more direct player in the micro-mobility landscape, CapMetro will expand its service abilities beyond fixed-route bus and rail service.

“We wanted to look at beyond just where the transit goes. We want to look at mobility,” said Ballentine. “It allows us to expand our service area and our reach. And also, partnership with the city is vital.”

Transportation and transit planners have often advocated for a more integrated transportation ecosystem, where riders can move seamlessly from one mode to another. The vision put forward would wed bikes, scooters, car-share and others into one trip-planning and payment platform. However, that dream has been slow to catch hold, given the many complexities when navigating among private sector, public transit and other providers.

Los Angeles Metro also operates its own bike-share operation, as Metro Bike Share, a network of some 1,500 bikes at more than 150 transit stops.

“We just finished rolling out the ability to trip-plan from a house, to a bike, to a bus, back to a bike and to your final destination,” said Ballentine.

“We know there’s a symbiotic relationship between a bike and a bus, and we really wanted to get to that, and think that will be a really cool product for us,” he added.

The role of micro-mobility within a transit network has become especially acute during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis as transit users have opted for open-air options rather than the closed confines of a bus.

“People have found that getting around on bikes was actually not only a good way to distance themselves from others, but also get around” said Ballentine. “Our [bike] ridership is actually above what it was before COVID. So we’re really shocked and excited by that.”

The health crisis also called attention to the vital role transit plays in getting workers to essential jobs and services, as well as the quick disappearance of private-sector micro-mobility providers as companies like Lime, JUMP and others pulled back on their operations. In a number of markets, scooters and bikes — which had become so common across cities, large and small — have still not returned.

Even as some micro-mobility operations, such as those operated by Lyft, are coming back online, the interruption has raised the argument for operating micro-mobility as an integral arm of public transit.

“I think if you would have asked me that four months ago I would have said, 'That’s ridiculous,'” remarked Ballentine, commenting on the issue, presented by Government Technology, adding “I think if you start looking at it like a public good, that’s an interesting argument for it.”

In Indianapolis, a private electric car-share operation known as BlueIndy announced its decision at the beginning of the year to leave the Indianapolis area. The departure has had residents rethinking their mobility options, said Austin Gibble, project development planner for IndyGo, the region’s transit provider.

BlueIndy allowed a number of residents to forgo a second car, and in some cases a first, said Gibble.

Having mobility services introduced to the public, but provided by the private sector, which are subject to their own financial whims, “is very challenging,” Gibble said during the webinar. “And maybe it’s a conversation that does need to happen. Are there things that are better managed under some sort of public entity, rather than private-sector industries leveraging public-sector infrastructure.” 

Micro-mobility is poised to make cities more resilient and equitable, say industry officials.

The crisis has “clearly been a hit on our business. Ridership is down across the board. That’s no surprise,” said Ron Burke, head of active transportation at Lyft, in a similar Shared-Use Mobility Center panel discussion in early May.

“For cities to be truly resilient, they need to have a variety of travel options,” he added. “And I think this crisis, as bad as it is, one of the silver linings is it really does demonstrate the importance of micro-mobility… to make cities resilient. It demonstrates the need to really commit to these modes over time."

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.

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