New Nonprofit Seeks Secret To Successful Bike Share In Small Cities (Interview)

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A few years ago, we entered an era where shared bikes were provided for free to any city that wanted them. Cities jumped at the opportunity to offer another form of transportation to their residents at no cost to their perpetually stretched budgets, but quickly learned that there was no free lunch. Streets became cluttered with broken bikes, which often ended up on light posts or in landfills, antithetical in so many ways to what bike share was supposed to be: a sustainable, efficient, means of micromobility for the community at large.

In addition to some of the early free floating bike-share chaos, many of these same cities experienced the whiplash of private, venture capital-backed transportation companies coming into a city or town, providing a valuable new transportation service, but then picking up and leaving when they couldn’t make bike- or scooter-share quickly pencil out financially. 

Across my state of Oregon, this happened in several mid-sized cities which launched bikeshare programs in 2017-2018, only to have the bikes pulled when the operator failed several years later.

Now the wild west of shared micromobility is giving way to a more controlled and maturing landscape where large cities are working with and regulating scooter and bike share operations so that they help serve the public interest in addition to making a profit for the companies that run them, at least theoretically. But smaller cities are often left out. Establishing new operations for equipment providers is a heavy lift. Fleet sizes are relatively small compared with major cities, and margins are razor thin or non-existent, particularly when cities want to retain some modicum of control over the public right of way.

Enter Brodie Hylton, legend of the bikeshare world, who helped launch and operate bikeshare programs in dozens of cities, including the nation’s first and largest programs like Indego (Philadelphia), Capital Bikeshare (DC), Divvy (Chicago), Hubway (Boston), and many others. 

Hylton is running a new nonprofit bikeshare operation called Cascadia Mobility in Eugene (and soon Bend) Oregon. Cascadia Mobility combines the efforts and resources of public, private and nonprofit entities  for a new model of successful micromobility in smaller cities and towns (disclosure – my employer Forth is Cascadia Mobility’s fiscal sponsor). 

Cascadia Mobility is running PeaceHealth Rides in Eugene, Oregon. Image courtesy of PeaceHealth Rides

I sat down with Brodie to talk shared bikes and scooters and his team’s new venture.

JW: Why is it unique to have a nonprofit like Cascadia Mobility manage a bikeshare system?

BH: There are lots of examples of nonprofits managing bike share systems. What I would say is unique is Cascadia Mobility’s geographic and multi-modal focus and interest. For one, location matters. When there is a sense of community ownership, bikeshare programs are more successful. We are place-specific: Cascadia refers to the Pacific NW, and our hope is to expand outward from Eugene with close enough proximity to share relationships, resources, and knowledge. Two, we are specifically focused on meeting the needs of small to mid-sized cities, which are well suited for our community-focused model. Three, we want to play a convening role among cities, transit agencies, and private business. We want to be a neutral party that helps bring all perspectives together to understand the value and path to interoperability and fare integration. (Author’s note – fare integration combines micromobility and transit. Imagine buying a bus ticket and getting a scooter or e-bike ride included in your cost.)

Image courtesy of PeaceHealth Rides

Finally, I’d say we are better suited to do things than either the public or private sector. We are nimble and community-oriented. We plan to pay a decent wage, offer benefits, partner with community organizations, and pursue funding from private sector sponsors and foundations. 

Why do private companies have difficulty in smaller city markets like Eugene’s?

Scale and startup. Launching a new program is costly, and while there may be upside depending on the business model over the long term, the scale is limited and therefore so is the upside potential. Small markets are what I’d call high risk, low reward. Moreover, in order to make the economics work in a city like Eugene, you need community investment. it’s hard to bring on required investment from both the private and public sector as a for-profit.

What happened to the previous operator of Eugene’s bike share Peace Health Rides?

Social Bicycles was the original operator and was having mild success meaning a path to profitable operations could have been figured out over time. But Social Bicycles pivoted from selling white-label pedal bikes and operations to cities, to rebranding as JUMP with an almost exclusive focus on the JUMP branded e-bikes. JUMP was acquired by Uber, which then made immediate plans to cover the earth in e-bikes. Problem was, Uber is not a hardware, manufacturing, or operations company and the product couldn’t scale. After two years, Uber dissolved the JUMP line of business which unfortunately included the contract with PeaceHealth Rides. Ultimately, this is good news for Eugene and PeaceHealth Rides, because the program can get back to being small, nimble, opportunistic and community focused. Eugene has chosen Cascadia Mobility because the community has the right partners to not only make this work at its current 300 bikes, but to grow.

What are the benefits of bikesharing?

The public benefits and subsequent available goodwill are high. Bikeshare in particular, including e-bikeshare, has been shown to accomplish all sorts of municipal goals: increase personal health, increase access to transportation, reduce dependence on driving, improve local economic outcomes (businesses with bike share nearby tend to see increase in sales).

Broadly, it helps improve community connection and health. 

How is PeaceHealth Rides in Eugene funded and does this present a new funding model to other cities and towns?

The economics of bike share, or any form of shared transportation, are really challenging, particularly when cities view bikeshare as a public service. Meaning, if we want shared modes to serve anyone other than the densest, highest-income communities, then we need to identify additional resources. We also need to think long term, about things like rainy day reserves for unexpected market interruptions (ahem, COVID), system growth, and of course eventually fleet replacement. The goal is not shoestring survival, it’s long term financial viability and sustainability. 

For a program like PeaceHealth Rides at 300 bikes the funding is 40% sponsorship (from the hospital PeaceHealth), 40% rider revenue and a 20% funding gap which needs to be filled. This is where we — The City and Cascadia Mobility — need to get creative!

What are your recommendations to other cities embarking on bikeshare 1.0 or 2.0?

While no two programs are the same, I think there are common success factors:

  1. Sponsorship(s) from a local institution or corporation. 
  2. Public Investment from the municipality, transit agency, or regional governing body, always leveraging federal and/or state funding.
  3. Single vendor contracting, to create consistent city or region-wide access and order, and minimize brand confusion.
  4. Incorporation of bikeshare into broader city or regional planning, including transit integration, bike infrastructure development, economic development, etc.

Cities that view bikeshare or more broadly shared transportation as a public asset that should be thoughtfully planned and incorporated into regional plans and strategies, those are the successful programs. 

[Note: Hylton and Joseph Wachunas will be speaking at an upcoming webinar on equity in micromobility hosted by Forth on Tuesday, May 11.]

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Joe Wachunas

Joe lives in Portland, Oregon, and works to promote electric and decarbonized buildings. He believes that electrifying everything, from transportation to homes, is the quickest path to an equitable, clean energy future. Joe and his family live in an all-electric home and drive an EV.

Joe Wachunas has 67 posts and counting. See all posts by Joe Wachunas