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San Antonio B-Cycle, by most measures, should be a national model: first bikeshare program in Texas, one of the first in the nation, and after four years its network of 55 stations and 450 bikes is set to expand to 76 stations and 650 bikes with a $1.2 million Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) grant. Nearly every neighborhood surrounding downtown will have stations by the end of 2015.
Unlike rideshare, where Uber and Lyft have suspended service to protest city regulations, bikeshare has become an integral part of the urban landscape since its launch in 2011. The understated grey bikes have been checked out 275,000 times. Riders have pedaled 818,000 miles, burning 36 million calories on the path to making San Antonio a healthier city. More than 3,000 locals have purchased $80 annual memberships, and thousands more have purchased $24 seven-day passes or $10, 24-hour passes. Tens of thousands of visitors have used the bikes during their stays. Nearly one-third of all B-Cycle trips are taken up and down the Mission Reach and to and from the Missions. Bikeshare has reduced the city’s carbon footprint.
Yet San Antonio B-Cycle could be on the verge of following rideshare and disappearing from the San Antonio landscape, multiple sources have told the Rivard Report, unless it can win the local government, corporate and philanthropic financial support that bikeshare enjoys in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, Houston, and Austin. The same sources said Cindi Snell, the unpaid executive director since B-Cycle’s started here, announced at a Tuesday B-Cycle board meeting that she has decided to step down later this year. Snell has recently told friends and colleagues in the cycling community that she is exhausted after four years of unsuccessful efforts to win any major sponsorships and operating on a bare bones budget and pro bono support services to survive.
(Read More: City Leaders Committed to Saving Bikeshare)
Sources say the B-Cycle board will have to consider shutting down or scaling back operations even as it seeks a new executive director, which it lacks funds to pay. One option would be to turn down the $1.2 million TXDOT grant to avoid the increased operating costs associated with an expanded network, but that would signal an end to rideshare’s growth in San Antonio, disappoint many neighborhoods awaiting stations, and the board would still face an underfunded system that would have to operate after losing Snell, bikeshare’s strongest and most visible advocate in San Antonio.
The bulk of funds that have built the San Antonio B-Cycle system flowed through the City’s budget from federal stimulus programs, and like the pending TXDOT grant, were for bikes and stations. Snell, co-owner of the Bike World cycling stores, has worked full-time for free while B-Cycle’s seven employees are paid modest salaries or hourly wages. The City, County and regional government entities do not contribute any funding to support B-Cycle. The 80/20 Foundation and Baptist Health Foundation have each contributed $50,000 grants this year, but no national company or locally-based company has shown interest in sponsoring bikeshare in the city.
Snell was not available for comment Tuesday night, but previously has said that San Antonio B-Cycle will raise about $450,000 in 2015 from all sources, including riders, and will need $750,000 a year to service the expanded 76-station system.
By contrast, Philadelphia is launching its bikeshare progam with 70 stations and 700 bikes later this month, thanks to an $8.5 million contribution from Independence Blue Cross that will underwrite the system with annual $1.7 million payments over the next five years. The system has been named Indego in honor of the corporate contribution. The City of Philadelphia is contributing $3 million to purchase bikes and stations, and other funding is coming from state and federal agencies.
Blue Cross Blue Shield is the corporate sponsor for the smaller, 20-station system in Houston. Ten different individuals in Austin contributed $50,000 each last year to Austin B-Cycle, which now claims to operate on membership revenue. Denver’s 700-bike system is underwritten by managed health care giant Kaiser Permanente and a network of more than 35 local government, corporate and philanthropic sponsors. Boston’s city-run Hubway system features 1,300 bikes sponsored by running shoe manufacturer New Balance, among others.
Bikeshare is seen as a key urban amenity that helps attract young professionals to live and work in cities. The closure of San Antonio B-Cycle, or the reduction in stations and bikes, would likely have the same kind of negative impact on the city’s image that occurred when Uber and Lyft pulled out.
The fate of San Antonio B-Cycle also could give the three leading mayoral candidates challenging Mayor Ivy Taylor a new issue to debate. Mike Villarreal issued a press release Tuesday afternoon, coincidentally, pledging his commitment to the B-Cycle program, although the release did not address its funding issues or commit the City’s support in the event he is elected.
“Bikeshare is one of the most exciting downtown innovations to come along in years. B-Cycle’s success in San Antonio is another clear sign that bicycles are coming into their own as a real alternative mode of transportation – and that our urban core is becoming more welcoming to young professionals,” Villarreal said in his Tuesday release.
“With 55 stations in operation, B-Cycle is firmly anchored downtown. But if it works in the inner city, let’s make it work in the rest of our city. As Mayor, I’ll encourage bike share on college campuses across San Antonio and in dense job centers such as the Medical Center.
“The B-Cycle program also has a place in my vision for a vibrant, 24-7 downtown. We want the center city to hum with the energy of tech entrepreneurs and thousands of office workers during the day, and the excitement of residents, visitors and San Antonians from around our city at night. Those big, gray bicycles will continue to pass through all of our downtown street scenes.”
Villarreal said it was his goal to make San Antonio a Top 10 Cycling City. That is unlikely to happen unless San Antonio decides it is willing to pay the price to become a city with safe cycling streets and a robust bikeshare program.
*Featured/top image: A San Antonio B-Cycle on display at The Pearl. Photo by Scott Ball.