Scott Ball / Rivard Report
As San Antonio’s leaders work to find new funding for VIA Metropolitan Transit, reduce carbon emissions, and make city streets safer for non-vehicle traffic, it’s important not to lose the most successful mobility development of the past decade: the arrival of San Antonio Bike Share in 2011.
It would be a tragic and embarrassing setback for San Antonio to lose the program after nearly nine years, even as elected officials focus on the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, SA Connect, and a November ballot initiative seeking to use a one-eighth cent sales tax to expand VIA services. Yet that is a very real probability without immediate intervention by local government and the private sector or philanthropic sponsors.
Given the importance of last-mile mobility options seen as key to reducing vehicle traffic, improving air quality, public health, and achieving the City’s Vision Zero goals, bike-share should be seen by the City of San Antonio and Bexar County as an essential tool. Yet the program receives no local public funding.
San Antonio Bike Share, propelled by $4.4 million in federal and state grants disbursed through the City over the last eight years, now includes 65 docking stations offering users 650 bicycles, including 189 increasingly popular e-bikes. Users only have to pedal to activate a battery-driven booster, making it a breeze to conquer Mission Reach inclines, and the modest hills north and east of downtown.
While the grants covered the capital expense of establishing and expanding the bike-share network in the city, the nonprofit’s modest $700,000 operating budget is funded through the sale of annual $100 user memberships, day passes, and sponsor support.
San Antonio Bike Share saw usage plummet in 2019 after seven different companies deployed as many as 16,000 dockless scooters that littered city sidewalks. With three companies set to deploy as few as 3,000 scooters in 2020, bike-share usage supported by a growing fleet of e-bikes, is bound to recover.
For non-users, bike-share’s well ordered system of bike docks is a desirable alternative to scooters left wherever their user ends a ride.
San Antonio Bike Share faces a challenging start to 2020 after its exclusive sponsor, Dallas-based Steward Health Care, failed to make the last two of its promised quarterly payments on its $400,000 commitment in 2019, according to J.D. Simpson, San Antonio Bike Share director.
In March 2019 Steward opted out of 2020 sponsorship, the final year of its three-year agreement. Simpson said she received two $100,000 payments in 2019, one in July and one in October.
A Steward communications executive who reached out after this column was published Sunday disputes Simpson’s claim and said the company owes a single payment of $100,000 that will be paid shortly.
Steward’s decision to end its sponsorship has left San Antonio Bike Share’s staff scrambling for new sponsors it has not yet found. The nonprofit also faces the expense of retrofitting an entire system of docks and bikes branded as Swell Cycle.
Steward bills itself as the nation’s largest privately-owned hospital system with 37 community hospitals in nine states, including the 350-bed Southwest General Hospital on San Antonio’s South Side, which it acquired in 2017 as the company underwent rapid growth through acquisitions and undertook significant debt.
Thus the “SW” in the awkward SWell Cycle branding, and the rear wheel fenders bearing the hospital’s name.
While the hospital group is privately held, an SEC filing and documents filed in Massachusetts, where Steward was formerly located, show the company lost $592 million in 2017 and 2018 on revenues of $10.3 billion.
Steward has never publicly stated its reasons for opting out of its three-year sponsorship.
The remaining funds Steward owes will have to arrive soon to make a difference. Simpson said operations will cease if new funding in February, in which case the City would be left holding the deactivated docking stations and bikes.
A Dallas-based corporation’s pullout should not be allowed to cause the collapse of bike-share in San Antonio. The last thing this city needs right now is to take a step backwards on the mobility front.
San Antonio has made little progress over the last decade in making streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians, most recently seen in the success of city planners and developers in blocking efforts to include bike lanes in the $42 million redesign of Lower Broadway. It’s been four years since The Bike Collective, a grass roots group of San Antonio cycling advocates, came together and called on City officials to build a continuous protected bike lane from the Pearl to the Blue Star to serve as an urban “backbone” for safe cycling.
Local officials and businesses need to rally to sustain bike-share in the long term. No form of transportation exists without public funding. Bike-share should be no different.
A more prudent strategy for San Antonio Bike Share is to seek multiple sponsors willing to support the program at lower level than $400,000 annually.
Readers can play a role, too: Become a member, or gift membership to friends or family. Download the app and give an e-bike a whirl. Offer visiting friends and relatives your card for their use. Ask your employer to take advantage of $80 memberships offered in group purchases. If you want to help without getting on a bike, make a tax-deductible contribution to San Antonio Bike Share.