The City of Hamilton has teamed up with New York based Social Bicycles (SoBi) to bring an ambitious new bike share program to the city this summer. SoBi has supplied equipment for similar programs in cities including Hoboken, San Francisco and Buffalo. The system works like this; users pick up a bike from one of the stations for a fee, ride it around as part of your commute, run short errands or go for a leisurely ride and then drop it off at another station when you’re done. You can also drop it off at a regular bike rack for the cost of $3. The fee is used as a credit towards the next rider to encourage them to pick it up and bring it back to a SoBi station. The new program will be launching this summer with a capital grant of $1.6 million from Metrolinx Quick Wins. This money is strictly to purchase the hardware and is not to go towards any operational costs. The initial start–up will include 750 bikes and 80 stations.
Peter Topalovic, Project Manager of Transportation Demand Management with the City of Hamilton says that the first phase of the roll–out will mostly cover the city centre and the west end. “...from the escarpment to the water and from downtown Dundas all the way through the west end to the downtown core and over east to Gage with the largest concentration of stations... being in the downtown and west end.”
With this bike share program, Hamilton will be following in the footsteps of other major cities in North America who have integrated these bicycles as part of their public transportation. Peter Topalovic and his team have been working on bringing this system to the city since 2009. Other cities in Canada including Montreal and Toronto, already have their own bike share programs but both have had financial struggles with Montreal being the worst. Their system, Bixi, filed for bankruptcy after owing creditors upwards of $50 million. The City of Montreal was left to help bail Bixi out using tax payer funds as loans and grants to keep Bixi from failing. Topalovic can assure Hamiltonians that he is confident in SoBi but if the worst case scenario happens, Hamiltonians are not financially or legally responsible whatsoever. “Well we had a council directive to ensure that there [were] no operating costs and I think that might have been from something like a Montreal situation. I just think that the caveat there for Montreal is that they designed and fabricated their own bike share system... Technologically they were a pioneer but they had to assume the costs of the design and manufacture. That’s not something that the City of Hamilton is in the business of doing... We are in the business of providing service for our citizens.” Instead, Social Bicycles will run Hamilton’s program through a non–profit organization, Hamilton Bike Share. Justin Wiley, Director of Business Development at Social Bicycles says that SoBi’s model was specifically designed to avoid these financial problems. “Our cost estimates for the Bixi system are close to $14 million. The same 3,000 bicycle 300 station system, could’ve been done with SoBi technology for $6.9 million. With the Hamilton system, the $1.6 million grant was initially going to pay for 300 bikes. With SoBi equipment we’re launching at a higher density with 750 bicycles and 80 stations.”
SoBi will generate revenue by selling membership, charging user fees, getting sponsorship and obtaining grants. Membership is $15 per month or $85 per year. That gives you up to 1 hour of free cycling every day and $5 per extra hour. If you don’t want a membership, you pay a one– time $3 fee and then $6 per hour. If you are a member, you will have a card not unlike the PRESTO card which allows commuters to simply tap their card to unlock the bike. You can also use an app on your smart phone to reserve a bike for up to 15 minutes and also use your phone to pay via credit card for your trip. If you don’t have a smart phone, there will be kiosks with credit card scanners.
SoBi will be providing riders with smart–bikes intended to help keep costs low. In other bike share programs, the locking technology was built into the bike stations but SoBi has built the locking mechanism into each actual bike. “Our technology allows us to optimize the system over time as each bike has wireless connectivity and GPS. This allows us to adapt, improve and grow the system using data from each bike. Additionally, we can limit operational costs because users can help redistribute bikes through our incentive tools i.e. users can get free time for returning bikes to hubs that have low capacity.”
Topalovic says that the integration of technology into the actual bicycle hardware will also help keep the system safe from thieves. “...the bikes have GPS on them, so if someone were to try to take that bike outside the service area it would alert the system, so it would end up becoming like a stolen bike. And then that bike can be tracked. And from what I understand... it is very difficult to disable the GPS without smashing the bike into pieces. You can also cut the lock, but as soon as the bike moves, without being borrowed out, it sounds the alarm. If that bike has been out for a very long time, it also sounds the alarm. So no matter how you look at it... beyond melting down the bike for someone to steal it and actually use it, would be nearly impossible.”
The Hamilton Bike Share program’s target market is commuters. Specifically people who might think about taking the bus but their stop is a bit too far away. Topalovic says that using a bike would help facilitate their commute. Their secondary market is people just looking to run errands and thirdly is a mix of leisure riders and tourists. Although commuters will be the primary target of the bike share program, Topalovic says that the City of Hamilton wants to ensure that tourists can easily take advantage of this transport service. “We want to make sure that we provide a good tourist experience. We have a water station at the waterfront for instance. We have one that goes to Dundurn Castle [and] we made sure that there are ones near hotels... We were lucky in that the commuter base was served by the same locations that also served the tourists.”
SoBi will be solely in charge of maintenance of the bikes. Wiley and his team have already put together a group of local Hamilton businesses to maintain the hardware through the Hamilton Bike Share. “Our Operations Manager is Sean Burak, the owner of [a] local bike shop, Downtown Bike Hounds and Robert Iszkula, owner of Bike Locke, is on the operations team. The local non–profit is comprised of members of the cycling community who have been involved in and dedicated to bicycle maintenance and advocacy in Hamilton.” V