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Debate over future of bike-share shifts into high gear ahead of February report

Last week, Stephen Braitsch helped his friend rent an e-bike from a Bay Wheels dock on Page Street. The pair took a leisurely two-hour ride through Golden Gate Park and down the Great Highway.

The cost? About “50 fuckin bucks,” Braitsch fumed, posting a screenshot of his reciept to Twitter. “It's cheaper to rent a brand new pickup truck on @Getaround.”

Braitsch isn’t the first to notice just how pricey checking out a Bay Wheels bike can be. A quick tweet search turns up numerous complaints of overpriced rides aimed at the Lyft-owned company, which has exclusive rights to operate bike-share in the city per a contract signed in 2015.

That contract is set to run through 2027, but a growing chorus of Bay Wheels skeptics are calling on city officials to do something about continued price increases and confusing rates, which they say are detrimental to the city’s transportation infrastructure. 

Supervisor Dean Preston has been following the debate and says Lyft’s monopoly on bike-share is hurting San Francisco’s green transit network. In February of last year, Preston called for a detailed study of the options on the table for the future of Bay Wheels once the contract expires—including full municipal control of the system. According to Preston, a report on the matter will be presented to the Government Audit and Oversight Committee on Feb. 17.

A Bay Wheels rider takes out a bike from a station on Valencia St. on Feb. 1, 2022. | Mike Kuba

Cost Comparisons

If bike-share in San Francisco feels expensive, that’s because it is—at least for those who want to do something other than regularly ride a pedal-powered bike for short distances. A membership in San Francisco costs $159 per year and buys a rider unlimited free trips on pedal-powered bikes as long as they’re under 45 minutes long. But without a membership, a 30-minute trip costs $3.00, more than the cost of a ride on Muni. 

E-bikes can cost far more. A 60-minute e-bike ride for a non-member—say, a trip to the nearest supermarket and back—can climb as high as $21, and if you decide to end your trip anywhere but a pre-approved docking station, you’ll pay a $2 penalty. Even with a membership, that ride comes out to $12.

Bay Wheels does make an exception for members living in areas that have been deemed “less connected to transit.” For members riding to or from those parts of Balboa Park, the Bayview and the Outer Richmond, the first 45 minutes of an e-bike ride costs just $2 no matter what.

San Francisco rates are not out of line with Lyft-run bike-share programs in other major American cities. In fact, New York’s Citi Bike service just raised its rates on Jan. 28—bringing the cost of a basic trip for non-members to $3.99. 

But in most cities where Lyft operates a bike-share program—including Chicago, Minneapolis and Columbus—as soon as riders add more time to their journey or choose an e-bike over a pedal-powered bike, those costs ratchet up quickly.

Lyft declined to provide its profit margins on Bay Wheels for this story and has not disclosed them to the city either, but previous reporting from the San Francisco Examiner found that Lyft loses substantial sums in the San Francisco market.

The company says its current prices are set based on lots of factors, one being revenues—and those have plummeted along with ridership in San Francisco over the course of the pandemic, which the company attributes largely to prolonged office closures.

In February of 2020, Lyft recorded more than 480,000 rides. Just two months later, that number was down to 95,000—and has only risen to 120,000 in the two years that followed. Lyft officials said other cities have seen growth during the pandemic—New York and Chicago have both seen more than 35% increases in ridership since 2019 as compared to San Francisco’s 22% drop during the same period.

A Citibike station in New York City displays the price of a day pass for non-members. | Sophie Bearman

The company says its costs in San Francisco include losing one station battery—which charge power the self-service kiosks and other docking components—to theft every day on average. Further, the company says that its main focus has been on keeping prices low for members, specifically, and that rides like Braitsch’s would be better served by a local bike rental shop. 

Meanwhile, the city and MTC shoulder no costs for running the program—and have even collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties when Lyft doesn’t meet the city’s maintenance standards as stipulated in the contract. 

All of these factors, Lyft officials say, are tied to its bike-share rates, which were last raised in San Francisco in late 2021. 

Spinning Wheels 

Proponents of more municipal control over bike-share say it would help drive down costs. In fact, the first version of the current Bay Wheels infrastructure was a government-controlled pilot program when it was launched by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in 2013. But in 2015, the agency signed a new contract with the program’s operator, Motivate, which effectively granted it exclusive rights to the San Francisco market. Motivate was acquired by Lyft in 2019. 

The contract—which is still in place today—also gave Motivate the right to set and raise all of its own prices except for the annual membership fee and the cost of Bikeshare for All, which offers cheaper memberships to residents who qualify for other local government-subsidized programs. A 2018 contract between Motivate (now owned by Lyft) and the city is what dictates current e-bike prices. That contract is set to expire in 2024. 

A Bay Wheels bike sits docked at a station on Feb. 1, 2022. | Mike Kuba

Though the contract between Lyft and MTC is good for another five years, some transit-minded San Franciscans are already thinking about what to do when the deal ends. Both SFMTA and MTC representatives told The Standard that they are open to exploring new options as the technology and market change.

Preston believes that the solution to more affordable, accessible and transparent bike-share lies in greater government investment. The only question is what form that investment will take. 

One option is a fully municipal program, in which the city would own and operate bike-share entirely, requiring public funding for acquisitions and operating costs. That model would exclude Lyft and require SFMTA or MTC or some other public agency to take on the day-to-day operations of the program. 

A second possibility would be a model similar to what currently exists in Washington, D.C., and Boston, where the city owns the physical assets—like the bikes and docks—while leasing them out to Lyft to maintain and to operate the entire system through its software. Those systems tend to be cheaper for riders because the city is subsidizing Lyft’s costs and can have a bigger role in regulating rates. As a result, in D.C., Braitsch’s two-hour e-bike ride would cost just $23.85 before taxes. A year-long membership costs $95 in D.C. and a day pass goes for just $8. 

A third option is to continue with the current model, where Lyft both owns and operates the entire system.

“It really comes down to what the city’s goals are and what some of their resources are,” Lyft Senior Policy Manager Colin Hughes said at a recent Richmond Family Transportation Network webinar on the topic. 

Marcel Moran, a city and regional planning researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees with Preston that greater government involvement could be a solution to making San Francisco’s bike-share more affordable and could help address price transparency issues. But he is wary of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

“It has taken a long time to build a Bay Wheels system which now I appraise in San Francisco as quite good,” Moran said. “My only fear is starting from scratch.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the city’s e-bike contract with Lyft expires in 2024.