Boulder talks transportation: Future of bike share, which wheels go where

Friday, Oct. 30, 2020

Boulder’s iconic B-cycles have remain largely unchanged since their 2011 debut. The color, the docking stations, the logo — even some of the bikes themselves are the very ones that rolled streets and sidewalks nearly a decade ago. The shared cycles have had consistent operation and ownership in Nonprofit Boulder Bike Share, using equipment and tech from BCycle, LLC, a subsidiary of Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycle.

Much of that could change, and soon, as the shared system searches for a sustainable funding model. Likely on the horizon are the debut — and, some say, eventual domination — of e-bikes and the possible end of Boulder Bike Share’s reign.

City council gave feedback Tuesday night that the future of bike sharing in Boulder may not include local ownership or operation — or any city money.

“I want to thank Boulder Bike Share for the past decade,” said Mayor Sam Weaver. “I hope they’re involved in the next decade, but I think we have to let the present market figure that out.”

Read a thread from Tuesday’s B-Cycle discussion

Staff plans to launch a competitive bidding process soon for organizations willing to own and/or operate a bike share system. The responses Boulder receiving will inform the eventual business model.

Four likely scenarios were laid out for council: 

Scenario A
New Private Sector Service Provider. Existing B-cycle system would be dismantled and the BBS nonprofit organization would be dissolved.

Scenario B
New Private Sector Service Provider. Existing B-cycle system would be dismantled. BBS would operate the new system through franchise model.

Scenario C
B-Cycle, LLC Operates Existing Platform. With or without a partnership with BBS.

Scenario D
BBS continues to operate existing B-Cycle system through on-going, annual city subsidy.

Private ownership would be cheaper for Boulder, but it means the bikes would need to turn a profit; the city could face a loss of service if they didn’t make money. Boulder would retain control if it kept subsidizing bike share — pursuing goals around equity and access — but continued government funding is unlikely given the deep budget cuts to transportation amid COVID-19. 

The level of subsidy required to keep Boulder Bike Share operational, however, is not financially viable with existing city transportation funds,” staff wrote in notes to council.

The city has contributed $1.038 million B-cycle over the past nine years. The University of Colorado and Boulder County have also kicked in. Boulder B-cycle has a fleet of 300 bikes and 45 docking stations, generating about 1 trip per bike per day, or 105,000 trips per year.

B-cycle’s share of local ridership (versus tourists) has increased in recent years, particularly among CU students. The university will likely maintain its financial support of bike share, Brandon Smith said Tuesday, which allows it to “gift” memberships to students, staff and/or faculty.

“We have seen a great success in that, so I feel good about that subsidy and providing a similar subsidy in the future,” said Smith, assistant director of sustainable transportation. “We would do everything that we could.” 

To scoot or not to scoot?

Boulder hopes to have a full offering of micromobility transportation options by the spring. (Micromobility = Small, lightweight vehicles operating at speeds typically below 15 mph and driven by users personally.) Along with the B-cycle revamp, staff intends to include e-bikes citywide — council pushed to up the share of electric bikes, given their popularity — and e-scooters in limited parts of east Boulder, per a Sept. 15 council vote.

That decision was not unanimous. Bob Yates and Mark Wallach dissented; Adam Swetlik was opposed as well but changed to a vote of support in the name of compromise. Mirabai Nagle, who was absent for that meeting, indicated her opposition via email. 

On Tuesday, Yates said he would “probably” vote down any deal for B-cycle if it included e-scooters, diverging from the will of council.

“I’m not excited about the fact we’re going to have e-scooters as part of this program,” Yates said. “So much so that I probably would tend to vote against whatever proposal comes before us if it includes e-scooters as part of a package with e-bikes.” 

Read a thread from Tuesday’s mobility discussion

Yates remains concerned about the high incident of e-scooter crashes, which led council to implement a moratorium on issuing business licenses to shared e-scooter companies in 2019. Technology continues to evolve; seated e-scooters will provide a lower center of gravity and bigger wheels, which should improve safety.

Safety dominated the second half of Tuesday’s discussion about where human- and electric-powered vehicles should be allowed in Boulder. Land use rules currently dictate whether bikes, scooters, skateboards, etc. can be on the sidewalk or in the street, but it’s created confusion for riders and pedestrians.

Sidewalks

Allowed: Human-powered (bikes, skateboards, rollerblades) and e-bikes

Not allowed: E-scooters, hoverboards, etc.

Multi-use paths

Allowed: Bikes, skateboards, rollerblades, e-bikes

Not allowed: E-scooters, hoverboards, etc.

Streets/bike lanes

Allowed: Bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters

Not allowed: Skateboards, rollerblades, one-wheels, etc.

Staff’s recommendation was to allow every type of vehicle everywhere — streets, sidewalks and multi-use paths — but have clearly defined “dismount zones” in areas with high pedestrian volume, such as downtown and University Hill.

Council members wanted to tinker with dismount zones, which staff had suggested follow the bounds of general improvement districts. Downtown, for instance, lacks protected bike lanes or multi-use paths on some streets, councilman Aaron Brockett pointed out.

“We don’t have a good low-stress bicycle network all the way through downtown,” he said. Brockett also suggested a second look at a proposed dismount zone in Boulder Junction: “I was a little unclear why that improvement district was included in the dismount zones. Right now it doesn’t have that high of pedestrian traffic.”

A majority of council also wasn’t comfortable allowing electric-powered devices on sidewalks, due to their high speeds and potential for collisions with walking residents.

“I have a grave concern about putting electric-powered vehicles on sidewalks, generally,” said councilman Wallach. “I think protection of pedestrians has to be our first and highest value, especially since some of those pedestrians are going to be children or the elderly or other people who are not quite as nimble in terms of getting out of the way of someone who is careening down the sidewalk with an electric-powered apparatus.”

Some Boulder residents share those concerns. In an online questionnaire, 42% of respondents ranked speed of e-vehicles as their top concern in allowing them on sidewalks. Council questioned the validity of the survey, which drew 360 responses.

In five years of data collected by the transportation department, there were no severe bike vs. pedestrian crashes on sidewalks or multi-use paths (though some serious bike-on-bike crashes on paths). Data on collisions involving electric-powered devices was not presented, though they are present in small numbers on paths and sidewalks.

One issue, according to staff, is that users are unclear of speed limits on multi-use paths (15 mph) sidewalks (8 mph in the crosswalk) or the rules on “which wheels go where,” as transportation planner Dave “DK” Kemp said.

“We could do a better job” of educating the public, Kemp said. “We have to go full court press to really get the word out there,” which may include speed limit signs on sidewalks.

More public engagement is planned. Staff will return to council in January with proposed changes; a public hearing will be held at that time.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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