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What City Emails Show About Baltimore’s Failed Bike-Share

More than 900 pages of emails paint a clearer picture of the shortcomings of the city’s effort to roll out a bike-share program that would eventually be replaced by a Bird and Lime scooter pilot.

by Colin Campbell, The Baltimore Sun / November 21, 2018
Baltimore City Hall Shutterstock/Jon Bilous

(TNS) The Baltimore Sun has obtained more than 900 pages of city officials’ emails that provide a behind-the-scenes look at the Baltimore Bike Share program’s demise and its eventual replacement with the Bird and Lime scooter pilot agreement.

We’ve broken down the main findings from the emails, as well as some extras that didn’t make it into the story:

» With the program foundering again in June, its Canadian vendor, Bewegen Technologies, billed the city more than $500,000 and asked the city to write a bulk theft report for more than 100 missing bicycles so it could file an insurance claim. (The city replied that this “would be committing insurance fraud.”)

» At least one sponsor, the University of Maryland BioPark, lost patience with the program and requested its sponsorship end and its station removed because of a persistent lack of bicycles.

»The city Department of Transportation agreed to Bewegen’s request to describe the shutdown as “mutual,” despite the fact that the city had fired the company less than 24 hours before the shutdown was announced.

» With Baltimore Bike Share failing, officials abandoned efforts to make the system equitable — and an official with the company even suggested low-income residents simply didn’t want the bikes.

» City transportation officials even explored the possibility of joining Washington’s successful Capital Bikeshare before opting to try out electric scooters from Bird and Lime.

Some other findings:

» The Baltimore City Department of Transportation accidentally sent Lime the wrong agreement — and didn’t provide the correct one until the day before announcing the pilot program on Aug. 15.

“Throughout the agreement it reads Bird Rides, Inc.,” wrote Maggie Gendron, Lime’s director of strategic development & government relations. “Can we change it to read Lime.”

“How embarrassing,” Director of Transportation Michelle Pourciau replied. “We will get you the change first thing tomorrow.”

A brief history of the Baltimore Bike Share, from its birth to its eventual downfall »

» Lime, which also offers dockless bikes, told top Baltimore transportation officials that the pilot agreement’s fee structure appeared “heavily written by Bird” and would preclude Lime from offering bicycles until it could be amended.

“A fee structure that hefty may be financially plausible for a scooter only company, but when the bike is only $1 to ride, a fee of $15k annually and then $1/vehicle/day is not feasible for bikes,” Gedron wrote. “So when cities take on this fee structure they are essentially eliminating bike share as a possibility.”

Matt Warfield, bike city planner in the transportation department overseeing the transition, asked whether she had shared the concern with Pourciau or Theo Ngongang, her deputy director and chief of policy.

“I did yes, twice — however the permit remained unchanged,” Gedron replied. “I sent a follow-up email this morning.”

» Baltimore wasn’t the only city whose Bewegen-operated system had been facing challenges.

Jakob Helmboldt, pedestrian, bicycle and trails coordinator for the Richmond Department of Public Works, emailed Warfield after the publication of a Baltimore Fishbowl investigation titled “The Baltimore Bike Share system is about to fail — again” to say Richmond’s system was seeing problems, although to a lesser degree.

“I have some additional questions for you in advance of a meeting with Bewegen tomorrow,” Helmboldt wrote. “I saw the article in the Fishbowl regarding the B-more bike share woes. We are seeing some of the same issues, but not to the same extent.”

» Given the opportunity to review a draft of the agreements for the Bird and Lime pilot, Liz Cornish, executive director of the advocacy group Bikemore, weighed in with a long email identifying parts of the deal she said needed to be strengthened. Many of her suggestions were followed.

“Equity - in each council district isn’t good enough,” Cornish wrote. “This is the area where the city is most vulnerable to critique.”

“Data - We are only asking for general bikeshare feed specification format and an email monthly report,” she wrote. “This isn't good enough.”

The areas of the agreements outlining dockless scooter placement, specifications and removals, too, needed to be clarified, Cornish said. She sent several best-practice suggestions from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which had already regulated the companies.

Cornish’s final point in the email was that Baltimore should allow the scooters to be ridden in bike lanes — and continue building the lanes to encourage their use.

“The city is opening itself up to liability when we already don’t provide adequate infrastructure and then removing use from the little we have,” she wrote. “There is now legal precedent for holding the city liable when when injury occurs on corridors where there is insufficient protected infrastructure. This needs to be evaluated seriously.”

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

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