What’s the future of Austin BCycle?

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BCycle employees check tires at bikes at Lavaca & 2nd.

I was curious about how the scooter invasion (and to a lesser extent, dockless bikes) had affected Austin BCycle, the original bike-sharing program. Last Monday, I sent a couple emails to BCycle leaders that weren’t returned and the next day I learned that Paul Cobler of the Statesman had the same idea:

B-cycle, the dock-based bike rental program owned by the city of Austin, has seen a sharp decrease in rides taken in most parts of the city since dockless transportation first began to appear on Austin streets this spring, said Elliott McFadden, who runs Bike Share of Austin, the nonprofit that has operated B-cycle on behalf of the city since 2013.

“It’s definitely impacted the overall ridership and sustainability of the system, and that’s something we’ve tracked and is a direct correlation to the number of (dockless) vehicles that have been permitted. Each time the city allows a new vendor in, we do see a new dip in ridership,” he said, noting that B-cycle remains competitive around the University of Texas. The nonprofit started offering free rides to students in February.

In October, slightly more than 9,000 rides were taken by people who weren’t UT students, compared with just more than 20,000 rides in October 2017, according to B-cycle data.

From July through September, 245,000 rides were taken using dockless transportation in downtown Austin, or roughly 27 percent of the slightly less than 900,000 rides taken across the city during that time, according to a Transportation Department memo. For comparison, B-cycle tracked 90,000 rides in its entire system during that same period, according to data provided by McFadden.

For years BCycle has provided an active, affordable and environmentally-friendly form of transportation that thousands of people have clearly appreciated. And I wish them the best of luck as they try to stay alive.

Even in the pre-scooter days, it was a pretty narrow set of circumstances where it would make sense for me to pay a few bucks to rent a bike to get from one BCycle station to another. If I didn’t have my own bike (which only cost marginally more than the annual BCycle subscription), there would of course be more circumstances where it would make sense, but not that many more. I live relatively central –– about three miles south of the river in the South Lamar neighborhood –– and yet the closest BCycle station is at least two miles away. When I lived on Enfield Rd, in Clarksville, the closest was at least a mile away. There aren’t many scooters near where I live either, but at least I can ride a scooter home from a likely destination (downtown).

Maybe I’m underestimating the BCycle bikes themselves, but the description of them as “heavy” and “clunky” by one guy quoted in the Statesman perfectly sums up my impression of them. They never looked like the kind of thing I’d like to use to climb up Lavaca.

Long before Bird and Lime hit the streets, I figured that dockless bikes would be the only way to really sell the masses on bike-sharing. The scooters have transformed the situation so quickly, and yet, McFadden still seems to believe that the genie might somehow get stuffed back in the bottle:

“They could be class-action lawsuit away from not having an industry anymore … . It’s very early to say whether this is the future or not, but it honestly feels like a fad in a bubble.”

There’s got to be a similar quote circa 1900 from a horse trader commenting on the automobile. I don’t know what’s going to happen to electric scooters, but the only way they’re going away is if they’re replaced with something even faster and cheaper.

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