Three bike share companies vie for city contract

BY PRU SOWERS

KONK LIFE STAFF WRITER

A controversial proposition for the city to partner with a for-profit company on a bike share program will come before Key West City Commissioners on May 16.

Assistant City Manager Greg Velez said three companies have submitted proposals for the program, which will allow city property to be used for the short-term rental of bikes used primarily for transportation, not sightseeing. A city staff evaluation team led by Key West Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator Chris Hamilton has given top marks to Zagster, a Cambridge, Mass., company with over 140 bike share systems in place across the country, Velez said. The other two bidders were Social Bicycles (SoBi) and Gotcha Bike.

The bike share program is envisioned as an extension of the existing city public transportation system, which includes buses, walking/biking signage and soon-to-be added ride share programs such as Lyft and Uber. The idea is to help reduce the number of cars traversing Key West’s crowded streets. A key part of the program is the new Duval Loop free bus route, a 16-stop circulator bus operating between United and Caroline streets in the downtown area that will debut around the end of May.

Bike sharing will allow riders to use their mobile telephones to find and reserve one of a fleet of bicycles stationed on city property in the downtown area initially but eventually extending throughout Key West and Stock Island. The idea is for riders to use the bikes to get from one part of the town to another, then return the bike to a designated rack where it would immediately be available for rent to someone else. However, Velez said some of the existing tourist-driven bike rental companies are concerned about potential city-supported competition to their businesses.

“Yep,” Velez said when asked if he expected complaints from local bike rental company owners. “They obviously are going to have some concerns. The last thing the city wants to do is to go into competition with people trying to make a living.” As a result, Velez said, there will likely be changes, possibly extensive, needed before a bike share program gets the go-ahead from city commissioners.

All three proposals adhered to the city request that their program focus on trips less than an hour in length. And all revenue collected from the actual bike rental will go to the city’s Transportation Alternatives Fund, not the bike share company. However, the company can make money from sponsorships, advertising and membership fees.

Zagster has proposed membership plans starting at $3 for a 24-hour period, up to a year’s membership priced at $25. For that, a rider would be able to rent a bike for free for 90 minutes a day and $3 an hour thereafter. Gotcha Bike’s membership plan offers a monthly membership fee at $15 with one hour free usage per day and overage charges at $6-8 an hour. SoBi’s proposal included the option of a monthly or annual membership plan or a flat $8 initial fee with prorated rates by the minute thereafter.

Velez said there may be other concerns about any advertising and sponsorship signage proposed by the winning company.

“We’ve got HARC issues. We’ve got fire corridor issues. There will be a lot more tweaking to be done,” he said.

Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator Hamilton agreed that getting a bike share program implemented in Key West will be a challenge but that it has worked successfully in dozens of other cities in the U.S. The idea is for the program to be a “hop-on, hop-off” transportation alternative with, for example, the first 30 minutes free but then escalating costs for longer periods of use, quickly making it more expensive than the per-day fee at existing rental companies. A rider could choose to use the Duval Loop bus to get to work and then rent a ride share bike to get home, Hamilton said.

“The whole interest is to use it, dock it and let somebody else use it,” he said about a bike share program. “It’s the way it works in most cities where it is accessible. You’re not supposed to use it for more than 30 minutes without a big charge.”