A Troubled Bike Share Takes a Time-Out

Last week, Baltimore resident Brian Seel posted a story on Medium chronicling his one-man survey of the city’s bike-share system, which opened last October with a 20-station, 200-bike system. Seel toured every station in the city on Labor Day.  He found only 4 working bikes, despite the system’s phone app assertion to the contrary.

As it turns out, the city’s Department of Transportation had quietly begun to take the bikes of service for a temporary system-wide shutdown it announced the next day. The DOT pledged to reopen the bike share by October 15.

The announced suspension of service came after a wave of thefts and vandalism that left only a third of the system’s bikes available, according to the Baltimore Sun. The system boasts 1,800 members and had logged 40,000 rides, so far, but a flaw with the locking system had left bikes easy to wrench out and abandon around town. Most were recovered eventually (they are equipped with GPS), but the backlog of maintenance work dwindled the number of functional bikes in the system. The undocking problem spiked over the summer—with a peak of about 130 bikes going out of service.

The $2.36 million system, which included a large number of electric-assist “Pedalec” cycles, is operated by Canadian manufacturer Bewegen Technologies. Bewegen is a relatively minor player in the burgeoning bike-share business. It operates four other city bike-share systems in the United States and five more in Portugal and Denmark. The company’s largest systems are about the size of the smallest cities covered by the two other North American public-private operators, Motivate and BCycle. With an expansion plan for 500 bikes and 50 stations next year, Baltimore’s system was on track to be the company’s largest system, surpassing their 400-bike system in Birmingham, Alabama, and the recently launched 220-bike system in Richmond, Virginia. Earlier in the summer, officials announced that the planned expansion would be pushed back to September.

The company says it hasn’t previously had a problem with widespread theft, company CEO Alain Ayotte told the Sun: “We don’t have this issue anywhere else, not at this level.”

Well, welcome to Baltimore, noted those familiar with the city’s rep for lawlessness. But Liz Cornish, who leads the bike advocacy nonprofit Bikemore, says that Bewegen has stepped up to fix the locking problem, jumping into research and development for a new lock. She’s supportive of the decision to go offline, which will bring a chance to make other improvements, but thinks the real challenge is communication and outreach, because what frustrated bike-share riders the most was the lack of transparency.

“We were raising alarm bells. We said, ‘The system is suffering, members are angry. We really think you should release a statement,’” Cornish says. “But I am sympathetic to the fact that it’s difficult to talk about crime in Baltimore. It’s complex.”

This vandalism doesn’t appear to fit the usual bike-share sabotage narrative. In Portland, Oregon, the city’s 200 Nike-sponsored Biketown bicycles have been targets of the anonymous Rose City Saboteurs, who slashed tires and spray-painted docking stations this April. In San Francisco, meanwhile, Ford GoBikes have been dismantled and hung from a tree, thrown into the bay, and set on fire in acts of gentrification resistance. The Baltimore program, on the other hand, seems to be victim of simple nuisance vandalism: Kids were pulling the bikes loose and joy-riding.

“It’s an electric bicycle,” Cornish says. “Are you kidding?” Part of the problem is that younger teens aren’t allowed to rent the cycles. “It is tough, because the city made the choice to make the bikes only available to those 18 and up. So youth legally can’t even access the bikes.”

The Baltimore program began with equity as an explicit goal: It borrows a lot of the inclusive features of Philadelphia’s successful Indego program—with cash payment systems, low-income enrollment programs, and membership discounts. Cornish says that the city needs to spread the word about those programs better; she’s encouraged that Webegen recently hired a new marketing officer to improve outreach. Bikemore published a statement about the shutdown that emphasized the urgency of making the re-booted system more accessible: “Allowing the private market to solely dictate expansion rates and station locations will only further the inequity,” the statement declares.

Most important, Cornish thinks there’s an opportunity to use this time-out to reframe bike sharing’s future role. “Vandalism isn’t a unique issue to Baltimore, but how is occurring and why it’s occurring might be,” Cornish says. “The solution can’t just be to make it harder to get the bikes out. There has to be another way that we can make people feel included. What are we doing to make bike share feel inclusive and accessible to everyone? What are we doing so that it feels like something that people want to take care of and be a part of?”