As Santa Cruz tries bike-share again, officials foresee a smoother ride this time around
With more than 400 bikes and 800 docks up and running around Santa Cruz and the UCSC campus, and plans to expand around the county by next year, the bike-share deal with Wisconsin-based BCycle is “leaps and bounds” better than the previous arrangement with Jump that petered out in 2020.
This story was originally featured in this week’s In the Public Interest newsletter from Christopher Neely. Be the first to hear about politics and policy news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Christopher’s email newsletter here.
Astride the sleek, white e-bikes on Tuesday afternoon, public officials, staffers and residents gleamed as they rode through downtown and celebrated the long-awaited relaunch of bike-share in Santa Cruz.
Those smiles Tuesday contrasted with a brief scene on Pacific Avenue on Wednesday as a family of five approached the new transit option. Unclear on the correct order, the frustrated parents were, simultaneously, trying to unlock the new bikes from their black arched docks, download the app on their phone, type in their credit card information and ensure their youngest wasn’t rolling into traffic.
The dichotomy offered too easy a metaphor for the era of bike-share in Santa Cruz. It has been complicated, with a sense of progress and frustration riding along in tandem.
Micromobility company BCycle’s launch last Tuesday in the city of Santa Cruz and its University of California campus marks a new chapter, and one that promises to iron out some of the logistical wrinkles the community experienced with its first attempt at micromobility — those red Jump bicycles — between 2018 and 2020. Local decision-makers have latched onto the new vision.
The city of Santa Cruz and UC Santa Cruz received more than 400 of the white, basketed Trek e-bikes from Wisconsin-based BCycle last week. By January of next year, about 900 more will be parked throughout Capitola, Watsonville, unincorporated parts of Santa Cruz County and Cabrillo College. Scotts Valley was the only jurisdiction to step back from this newest version of the program.
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Where they’ve been introduced in cities across the world, bike-share programs like BCycle have helped to answer a pesky question in the larger discussion around how best to move people. Globally, robust public transit systems, such as rail or bus, are known to help large numbers of people travel the farthest. They get commuters out of cars and relieve communities from the stuffy combination of traffic congestion and carbon emissions.
However, the “last mile” — i.e., moving people from home to the bus stop, or from the rail station to their job or appointment — had long stumped transportation planners. Encouraging people to purchase their own bicycles is not an answer for an entire community. But what if there could be a fleet of bicycles, or, in some cases, standup electric scooters, that people could rent for single rides? This is where shared micromobility companies such as BCycle have stepped in.
Between 2018 and 2021, trips on e-bikes taken through bike-share programs nearly doubled in the U.S., from 9.5 million to 17 million, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, an organization of 96 major North American cities focused on transportation solutions. Of those 17 million e-bike bike-share trips, 14.5 million were taken through systems that included bicycle docks, a 29-fold increase over the 500,000 similar trips recorded in 2018.
Despite the growth we’re seeing now, the early years of shared micromobility systems showed a gap between the potential of the idea and its execution within some communities. Santa Cruz watched this play out on its own sidewalks five years ago.
In early 2018, scooter-share company Bird, overnight, dropped off nearly 200 standup electric scooters on sidewalks across Santa Cruz — without permission from the local government. The scooters didn’t have parking docks, which meant they could be rented and discarded anywhere in the city. After Bird ignored a cease-and-desist letter from Santa Cruz’s legal team to remove the scooters, the city impounded them and was never able to come to an agreement with the company.
Later that year, the city contracted with Uber-owned Jump for a fleet of dockless e-bikes. From a usage perspective, Jump was successful. Claire Gallogly, Santa Cruz’s transportation planner who has led all iterations of the city’s bike-share program, says Jump saw an average of five 2-mile trips per bike per day. Brian Conger, BCycle’s executive director, told me Santa Cruz used the bikes at a higher rate than any of Jump’s other markets.
Yet, because Jump was also a dockless system, the community began seeing red bicycles strewn about the city, creating aesthetic headaches and sidewalk hurdles. Then, in April 2020, Jump disappeared. Gallogly told me the timing led people to think it was just another casualty of the pandemic. However, she says it was more complicated.
Around the same time, Jump merged with rival micromobility company Lime, whose main product was the dockless, standup electric scooters. According to Gallogly, Lime’s “hardened offer” to Santa Cruz was that the city could maintain its Jump bike fleet only if it also added scooters. City officials rejected the offer. Lime/Jump closed up shop, and Santa Cruz was left without a micromobility option, until last week.
At the BCycle launch Tuesday, Gallogly told me if Jump never merged with Lime, those red bikes had been poised to remain in Santa Cruz. Peering at the sleek new BCycle bikes parked along the sidewalk, she called Jump’s departure a blessing, albeit a very inconvenient one. Santa Cruz and the surrounding jurisdictions almost immediately agreed that they wanted to resurrect bike-share in Jump’s wake. However, the logistics of coordinating a shared micromobility vision across six jurisdictions, combined with the uncertainty of the pandemic, delayed the program’s return.
This version of bike-share, Gallogly says, has improved by “leaps and bounds” and will be successful in Santa Cruz County. After downloading the BCycle app and entering payment information, riders have to unlock them from a stationary dock. After a ride, the bikes need to be returned to a docking station near their destination. Randomly discarding a bike on a sidewalk outside of a dock could come with a $2,000 fine, disincentivizing the disarray seen with Jump bikes.
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“We’re a great cycling community,” Gallogly said. “We have a culture of cycling. We’ve invested heavily in infrastructure to make cycling better. And these e-bikes are fast and fun. I always say bike-share is the gateway drug to e-bikes. As soon as Jump left, my family and I bought an e-bike right away.”
Conger told me BCycle has a five-year contract with the City of Santa Cruz, the county, UCSC, Cabrillo College, Watsonville and Capitola. The system as a whole is expecting an average of three trips per bike per day. Riders can pay $7 every 30 minutes, $30 per month for unlimited 30-minute trips, or $150 for an annual pass.
Although there is no public funding involved, there is the potential for revenue-sharing. Starting in the third year of its contract, if BCycle makes a profit of more than 10% in the previous year, the company will pay the jurisdictions across the system $25 per dock.
As part of the launch, BCycle installed 800 docks across the city and campus for riders to park the bikes. Gallogly says more docking stations are a strong possibility as the city figures out the high-traffic locations for rides. The more docks there are, the easier it will be for riders to park the bikes near their destinations.
Speaking to the dozens of people gathered in front of Santa Cruz City Hall on Tuesday, Conger said the initial launch of more than 400 e-bikes in Santa Cruz and at UCSC marked a milestone for the company: The Santa Cruz system is the largest launch of an all-electric BCycle fleet out of the 35 communities its serves, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. Then, he pulled out a quote from science fiction author H.G. Wells: “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”
Prepare to see a lot of adults, college students and kids on bicycles in Santa Cruz County. Oh, and BCycle is offering a free month of rides as part of the launch. Use the promo code “BCYCLE831.”