It would cost $33.2 million initially and $18.2 million annually for San Francisco to own and operate its own bike-share fleet, according to a new report Supervisor Dean Preston commissioned from the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s office. The office used cost estimates from a similar bike-share system in Montreal to put together its estimate.
With Lyft’s exclusive contract to operate the Bay Wheels bike-share system in San Francisco set to expire in 2027, Preston asked the office to calculate what it would take for the city to own and operate its own system and what other management models could be possible. Under the current contract with Lyft, San Francisco has effectively no control over the system—but it also doesn’t cost the city anything. The supervisor is an advocate of more municipal investment and control over bike-share to drive down costs for riders and for environmental, access and transparency improvements.
“I think there are significant benefits to municipal bike-share,” Preston said at the presentation of the report at the Government Audit and Oversight committee on Thursday.
However, there’s nothing cited in the report yet about how the city would pay the initial costs for a fully municipal bike-share or if full or even partial city control is the best option for San Francisco. The study assumes that 75% of the annual costs to the city would be made up through sponsorships and user fees. Its calculations lean heavily on an example from Montreal—which it claims runs the only citywide publicly owned and managed bike-share program in North America—to calculate the expected costs and explore the potential benefits of more city control over bike-share.
Report author Karl Beitel said nearly all of the city leaders he spoke with both in Montreal and in other cities were interested in more city control, and those working with Lyft were frustrated with a lack of accountability and transparency from the company, which doesn’t share its profit margins.
“It was a general sentiment that they were always dealing with half a deck of cards,” Beitel said, noting that it’s difficult for city leaders to craft fully fleshed-out bike-share policies without access to Lyft’s data or a detailed understanding of the numbers informing the company’s business decisions.
Lyft did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the new report.
Preston left the question open of whether to end the contract with Lyft early—a move that San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority does not recommend—but his office noted the estimated cost of taking over the system would make up just a fraction of the current $1.4 billion SFMTA budget. The city currently pays nothing for the Bay Wheel system.
Notably, the report’s authors question whether Lyft, or any other similar for-profit business, is best fit to continue operating the city’s bike-share program because the company’s core business model—to profit from car-based ridesharing—could be antithetical to the program’s goal of encouraging transportation alternatives. That was echoed in Thursday’s meeting.
“There is an obvious conflict of interest because their main business model is putting people in automobiles,” Beitel said.
But Beitel’s main advice to the city is to only consider committing to municipal bike-share if the program is paired with complementary transportation policies.
“To just adopt bike-share without making other changes … it could be setting something up for policy failure,” Beitel said.
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