Keegan Castor, a technician for Denver’s B-Cycle shared-bike program, clears snow and checks on bikes at a docking station, at 4th Street and Walnut Street, on Jan. 30, 2019 in Denver.
A decade before scooters flooded into Denver, there were politicians on bicycles.
It was an experiment that started amid the chaos and excitement of President Barack Obama’s nomination in 2008. Much of downtown was closed to automobiles during the Democratic National Convention, so organizers improvised an alternative: They offered up 1,000 bicycles at stations around the city.
“There were conventioneers in suits and ties riding the bikes around. The news media found that they could get around a lot quicker on the bikes than in vans,” said Andy Duvall, a transportation researcher who worked on the effort with then-Mayor John Hickenlooper. “It was an opportunity to use these big, catalyzing events to raise the interest in bikes in the city of Denver.”
It worked. That early experiment evolved into Denver B-cycle, one of the first major bike-sharing systems in the United States, in 2010. Today, the city-subsidized, dock-based system competes with companies like Uber and Lyft that have deployed thousands of dockless scooters and bikes that can be rented by app.
There’s evidence that the new corporate players are hurting the popularity of the city service, creating questions about how the models can co-exist.
Use of the B-cycle service peaked five years ago in Denver, with the number of rides declining 9 percent between 2014 and 2017. Use of Denver B-cycle declined in 2018, too, B-cycle’s local leadership confirmed Friday, although specific data isn’t yet available.
“The overall number is going to be down,” said Mike Pletsch, executive director of Denver Bike Sharing, the nonprofit that runs Denver B-cycle. “We’ve seen growth in some areas. Where we haven’t seen growth, where we’ve seen downturn, can that be attributed to the new, dockless folks coming in? Absolutely.”
City leaders, however, aren’t backing away. They’ve boosted city support for the service, and Mayor Michael Hancock announced last week that the service would give away 5,280 free annual passes — a move that could double or triple membership in Denver B-cycle.
Two B-Cycle riders cross 17th Street as they ride along Lawrence Street with a view of Denver’s Union Station in the background on Friday, April 3, 2015.
The stagnation in rides could be due to the B-cycle network’s slow growth, Duvall said.
The service added 29 stations between 2012 and 2013, but it has only added seven since then, for a total of 89. New stations can cost $50,000 and bikes can top $1,000, Duvall said — a steep price for a group that had a budget of about $2 million in 2017.
“That may be an indication that it had reached saturation in the areas where it was most viable for operation,” Duvall said of B-cycle. He is a board member of the nonprofit that manages the service and works today at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
While B-cycle hit a plateau, the dockless services — with their venture-capital funding and flexible setups — have taken off.
Since they don’t need costly base stations — vehicles are collected and charged by workers — they’re easily deployed and removed from areas, allowing them to follow riders’ interests.
The dockless services are cheaper, too, for casual riders. B-cycle charges $15 per year and $3 per ride for its flex pass, while a typical scooter ride is less than $3.
The older docked service does have an advantage: predictability. They’re cheaper for frequent riders– a yearly unlimited pass is $75 flat — and the permanent stations can make them a more dependable choice.
Ben Gellman rides B-cycle from North Capitol Hill to CU Denver’s downtown campus, where he’s a grad student in planning.
“It kind of cuts both ways. With dockless, there’s often a vehicle near you, but not necessarily if you’re in a residential area, especially during the workday,” he said.
Gellman thinks that Uber’s dockless JUMP bikes have superior technology — with electric assist, they’re better for long rides or lazy days — but he says they’re just another welcome option.
For now, the city isn’t hitting the brakes.
The city doubled its funding for B-cycle from $400,000 to $800,000 for 2019. The city provided about 20 percent of the group’s budget in 2017; the service also brings in money from subscriptions and sponsorships.
Duvall thinks the ramp-up in funding is a signal that B-cycle is evolving into more of a public service.
“The 5,280 program is, I think, a kind of a new direction for how the city envisions its cooperation and the money it contributes to Denver B-cycle. It wants to expand access to a wider range of its citizens,” Duvall said. The city also subsidizes $10 unlimited passes for low-income residents.
A B-Cycle bike on a rack on Tuesday, December 7, 2010 during a round-up of the bikes on 19th Street and Market.
Compete or complement?
The new, for-profit services don’t always cut into the use of publicly funded systems. In fact, they sometimes can help.
Ridership for the docked Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., rose 12 percent from June 2017 to June 2018, reaching 392,000 rides a month despite the addition of dockless services. The dockless services added another 100,000 rides.
“I think that dockless opened that door wider, for more people,” said Alex Baca, who previously managed a bike-share system in Cleveland and now works for the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
In other words, the excitement of dockless scooters and bikes might benefit other options, too.
Still, Denver is not D.C. The nation’s capital has five times more stations and six times more bikes — 4,300 in all — and it continued expanding the network in 2018. The two cities have nearly equal populations, though Capital Bikeshare also stretches into D.C.’s suburbs. It’s one of the few to become a true transportation “service,” rather than an “amenity,” Baca argues.
“If you’re not meaningfully funding and expanding a bike-share system in the way that you would a road network or a bus system or rail service, then it’s an amenity, because it’s not going to grow,” she said.
With the new city money, Denver hopes that B-cycle will add five or six stations this year. The additions would likely be along the city’s growing bike-lane network, Pletsch said. But he downplays the idea that B-cycle must compete for new riders.
“We’ll continue to serve the Denver community as best as we can,” he said. “A lot of people say it’s competitiveness (with the new services) — we’re a local nonprofit. Do we really want to continue to compete with these national and international companies?”
Not so different
In the long run, dockless and docked might not be so different.
Some docked systems have started to introduce “smart” bikes that can be locked up anywhere, not just at stations. Trek Bicycles, the owner of the B-cycle brand, is working on that technology and on e-bikes for B-cycle, Pletsch said.
Bike docks also could become charging stations for electric devices, Duvall said. Paris has upgraded its beloved Vélib system for electric bikes, though the rollout last year was disastrous.
And, ultimately, all of the shared bike and scooter services work toward a common goal: getting people out of cars. That’s something Denver has struggled to do lately. The region’s bus ridership has declined, too, as riders have flocked to Uber and other auto-based options, and the mayor has bemoaned the city’s high rate of car commuting as “shocking.”
For mobility reformers, the hope is that a fleet of new, casual riders will drive demand for bike lanes and other infrastructure. And for the skeptics, it’s one more thing to honk and sigh about from behind the wheel.
“I do think there’s more resignation on both sides,” said Denver Councilman Rafael Espinoza, “that they’re here to stay — so figure it out.”