Scott Ball / Rivard Report
It’s been more than four months since a frustrated San Antonio Bikeshare Executive Director Cindi Snell announced plans to resign from her unpaid role operating San Antonio B-Cycle, the city’s bikeshare program, which stirred the non-profit’s small board and City leadership to explore ways to recruit and fund new leadership.
Snell, also the co-owner of the Bike World cycling stores in San Antonio, was particularly frustrated by fruitless efforts to win corporate underwriting for the bikeshare program that is commonly found in other top U.S. cities.
Some B-Cycle board members have since resigned, a promising downtown corporate sponsor pulled out at the eleventh hour, and Snell, the City and VIA Metropolitan Transit, which is interested in promoting alternative transportation options, all are working to find a better operating model for the next year.
That includes hiring a paid executive director, which all parties agree will be accomplished in the next week as they weigh a short list said to be down to two finalists.
The City is committing one year’s funding to pay that executive director and the small B-Cycle staff and also is taking on the role of a management relationship with the nonprofit, but it doesn’t want to stay in the bikeshare business for long. Reconstituting a viable non-profit board of trustees is another challenge.
During its fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget presentation on Tuesday, the City’s Office of Sustainability outlined its plans. The proposed budge allocates $60,000 towards the bikeshare program that will add to the more than $120,000 committed during the 2015 mid-year budget adjustment.
Some of the $180,000 will go towards paying the nonprofit’s new executive director, and the rest towards a matching grant program to raise funds for operations and maintenance, according to Edward Benavides, City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s chief of staff.
The next executive director could be chosen and hired as soon as next week, Benavides confirmed.
The City’s goal for FY 2016 is to partner with other public entities, including the San Antonio River Authority and VIA Metropolitan Transit, to come up with $100,000 that the private sector would then match.
“The City does not want to operate a bikeshare system. That’s not in our wheelhouse,” Benavides said. “(But) working with a nonprofit organization whose sole mission is bikeshare makes sense.”
The executive director will be a City employee that will work with the nonprofit’s new board to solicit matching grants from private sector companies and analyze the existing system to maximize placement of stations and bike usage. Some stations could be relocated.
City Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1) has suggested that station placement in city parks and along the growing hike and bike trailways network would increase use of B-Cycle by locals. Most of the current usages is by tourists. Treviño believe sponsors will be easier to find if more locals use the amenity.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who has been a strong advocate for increasing cycling on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River and around the Missions, called on VIA to take over operation of B-Cycle this spring, but so far the mass transit agency has not made an official commitment.
“We’ve been having conversations with VIA about financial support … they are interested, but that hasn’t been finalized,” Benavides said.
The board discussed B-cycle during its executive session, among other items of consideration, but did not make any final decisions. During its July meeting, the board voted in favor of pursuing some kind of support and partnership.
“We believe that we can be a valued partner and that our combined B-Cycle/VIA program would benefit mobility throughout the region,” VIA President and CEO Jeffrey Arndt told Texas Public Radio in July. Arndt was unavailable for comment after Tuesday’s meeting.
Another opportunity with VIA would be to develop an “integrated ridership program,” Benavides said, where the connections between bus routes and B-Cycle stations are strengthened, and “where both transportation systems are talking to one another.”
What that “conversation” looks like has not been finalized, he said, but it could result in a “smart card” feature that offers discounts to users of both bikeshare and the bus system. “We are exploring that. It’s a discussion that’s happening nationally as well.”
The lack of digital pay options has long been a barrier for riders that don’t carry exact change. Combining pass systems that would allow users to purchase monthly or annual joint-use passes would be a step forward. Funding for a system that will allow boarding passengers to scan passes is included in the FY2016 budget.
Councilmember Treviño noted that 35% of B-Cycle’s revenue comes from stations located near the Mission Reach. He’d like to see more stations near public parks and along the growing creekway system to target more local residents.
“The distribution is patchy and there are hardly any (stations) in City parks,” he said.
Snell has been operating the nonprofit without compensation for four years on a “shoe string” budget from small sponsorships and rider fees. While “fresh blood is always a good thing,” Snell said, a successful bikeshare program will require a “combination (of) a strong executive director and a great board with the ability to fundraise and build good partners public and private … (B-Cycle) has to have a fundraising board.”
The current seven-member board will be replaced by a nine-member board that will be comprised of five previous members and four appointed by the City. The original board consisted of Snell, William Simons, Thomas McKenzie, Alan Harmon, Roger Christian, Elizabeth Fauerso, and Kim and Dr. Ken Ciolli (the later of whom served as one member).
“The board has been restructured to expand and to provide diversity,” Benavides said. The City’s Sustainability Director, Douglas Melnick, will be on the board and three more “at large” community members will be appointed. “Someone from the legal industry, tourism industry, marketing, hospitality, philanthropy, fundraising … so that we have a breadth of expertise at the table that brings in their networks of resources.”
It’s also possible that VIA will have a representative on the board. “We’re having conversations with them, too.”
The bikeshare nonprofit was the first in Texas and has been operating since April 2011 with generally positive results. 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.
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 in 2016, Snell estimates. “The magic number lives around $500,000” to maintain its current 55-station system.
“We laid the ground work, we did a lot of the heavy lifting,” Snell said, who will officially resign at the end of September. “I think a fresh set of eyes on the program is going to benefit all parties involved.”
*Featured/top image: The San Antonio B-Cycle hub located at the corner of East César Chávez Boulevard and South Alamo Street. Photo by Scott Ball.