Bike Share in SF is expanding, but “never” on the west side

Photo by Mike Koozmin, SF Examiner

This post has been updated with new information Nov. 5. 

The Bay Area’s shiny new Bike Share program is ready to expand, and in early 2014 the popular program will have new stations lined with 150 additional little blue bicycles in the Mission, Castro, Hayes Valley and Mission Bay neighborhoods. 

The reason is simple: Bike Share is wildly popular, and San Franciscans want bike stations a little closer to home. 

“We hear ‘gosh, it’s great for work trips, but it’d be nice if it went to where I live,” Bike Share project manager Heath Maddox said at a hearing Monday on the program’s expansion, called for by Supervisor Scott Wiener.

But if you live on the west side of the city, well, tough luck. Not only is Bike Share not likely to expand into the Sunset and Outer Richmond districts anytime soon, he said, it might not fully expand there at all -- ever. 

Standing before Supervisors Jane Kim, David Chiu and Wiener, Maddox took the opportunity to trumpet the program’s successes. Though Bike Share launched with only 350 bikes in 35 stations clustered around downtown and SoMa, the number of daily trips is above some competing sister cities, including Washington DC. Closer to Bike Share's launch, that wasn't the case.

With around 2,000 paying annual Bike Share members there’s also a great demand for more bike stations across the city, Maddox said. 

But anyone with eyes could see that the map he showed the supervisors was peculiar, zoomed entirely on new stations near the hip east side of the city. What about the Sunset and Richmond districts?

The new expansion will answer that need and bring 500 borrowable bikes and 50 stations total to San Francisco, but none on the west side, Maddox said.  

“We’re not going to blanket the Outer Richmond with bikes,” he told the Guardian after the hearing was over. The issue is density, he said. The eastern side of the city has more economic and population density, making for more bike usage. As for the west side, he said, “the economics aren’t there.”

bike share sustainability

The SFMTA conducted a study on the feasability of Bike Share stations in San Francisco. Suitability was measured by population and workforce density as well as proximity to bicycle facilities, wide sidewalks, and other factors. 

Another issue with bringing Bike Share to the west side is one way trips. If people are just biking to work in the morning, and back home at night, that makes for a lot of one way commuting that makes it tough to keep the bike stations stocked. Riders take trips back and forth between the stations in downtown and SoMa, something that would be tough to accomplish outside of the urban core. On the west side stations would empty out without new bikes rotating in. 

“It’s a significant cost to the system,” Maddox said. Asked when the Bike Share program would come into the west side in a big way, he put it simply: “Never,” he said. 

That may pose a problem for the program, as the most often “liked” critique of the Bike Share system is a lack of bikes and stations in all neighborhoods, according to a poll on one of their brochures

The SFMTA also crowdsourced votes for where people would like to see new Bike Share stations. A heat map version of the map shows blotches of red -- more requests -- concentrated near Valencia and the Castro. But it also shows a demand near Ocean Beach and the Inner Sunset, a trendy part of the “Outerlands” that’s also near the N-Judah line. 

bike share station heatmap

Users pin a map with desired stations, and the SFMTA used that data to create this heat map. Red areas denote places with many votes for new stations. 

There’s also a comparable demand to some stations in the west side of the city versus the east on their crowd sourced map. Though there are around 40 “likes” of support near 16th and Mission, a busy transit hub, there are over 90 votes of support for stations where Golden Gate Park meets Ocean Beach. 

Bike Share will likely have a few “satellite” stations near Ocean Beach, Maddox said, and the Phase 3 diagrams show an intention to move into the Inner Sunset. 

But the hearing also revealed another hurdle for Bike Share to clear: sustainability. In order for the program to “break even” operationally, Maddox said, the program would need to expand to 2,500-3,000 bikes in total inside of San Francisco. Its newest expansion brings it up to 500. 

That’ll cost $20-23 million he said. When Sup. Wiener asked where the funding would come from, Maddox said that federal grants and private donors were possibilities, but nothing was cemented yet. 

“If I had 20-23 million dollars I’d just blanket the eastern side of San Francisco with bikes,” he said. 

Sup. Chiu also had some pointed questions for Maddox. “20 percent of San Francisco residents don’t have credit cards,” he said, asking Maddox how Bike Share would make itself available to users whose only payment option is cash.

“We have work to do there,” Maddox said. “There’s no way around needing a credit card for annual membership, there's a $1,200 deposit to replace the bikes [if something happens].” 

But as for daily ridership, he said they were working with local credit unions to find an alternative for riders without credit cards. 

Sup. Kim also pitched an idea in making a pilot program for Bike Share at local high schools. Future expansion may include City College and San Francisco State University, Maddox said. 

But despite the challenges ahead, Bike Share is popular. More than two thirds of San Francisco voters support expanding the bike sharing program to 3,000 bikes, according to a poll conducted independently but commissioned by the SF Bicycle Coalition. 

The Guardian reached out to Supervisors Katy Tang and Eric Mar, but they were unable to reach us before press time.  

 Update: Peter Lauterborn, a legislative aide in Sup. Eric Mar's office, called in the morning to respond to questions about Bike Share in the Richmond district. 

"There are a couple of challenges, there are hills in the way right now, literally," Lauterborn said. Because of the lack of fiscal sustainability, Sup. Mar's office started reaching out to businesses and institutions to see if they'd be interested in funding Bike Share in the district, but he said the talks are still preliminary.

For now though, "constituents are pretty silent on the project, there has not been a lot of push to get [Bike Share] into the Richmond." 

Though Richmond district residents haven't contacted Sup. Mar's office clamoring for Bike Share, there were over a hundred requests for Richmond District Bike Share stations on their website. If residents want stations in their area, they'll need to make their voices heard.