By Khalida Sarwari
No car, no problem.
In Silicon Valley, there are plenty of apps for getting around. Between ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft and on-demand car-sharing companies like Zipcar, gone are the days of the haggard hitchhiker left stranded along the side of the road with his thumb sticking out awkwardly. But while there are more options than ever now to get from point A to point B, the Bay Area’s notorious traffic congestion and elusive parking spaces have rendered car ownership nearly pointless for many.
Mario Ramirez, 30, doesn’t own a car but that’s never hindered his mobility in San Francisco, where he calls the Mission District home and works in human resources. His preferred modes of transport in the city include BART, public buses and his own two feet, depending on distance. Since July, he’s added one more to his fleet: the Ford GoBike, a regional public bicycle sharing system offered in San Francisco and other cities along the Caltrain corridor.
The system went by a name that may sound more familiar: Bay Area Bike Share. Though he previously shunned bike sharing as inconvenient, Ramirez says he now finds himself using the Ford GoBike up to three times a week to run errands.
“It’s a lot easier than waiting for a bus,” he said. “I really like the service; I just can’t wait for them to finish it out, and hopefully, there will be more stations once they’ll be done with it.”
That’s the plan, according to Dani Simons, the director of communication in external affairs at Motivate, a New York City-based company that owns and operates the Ford GoBike program along with Citi Bike in New York and other bike sharing systems in several cities across the country.
Motivate is adding 7,000 bikes to its GoBike fleet in the Bay Area. In San Jose, docking stations can be found at 25 locations throughout downtown as well as on the outskirts, and several more locations are planned for next year. By the end of this year, there will be 1,000 bicycles in San Jose alone, according to Simons.
“San Jose is one of the largest cities in the U.S.,” Simons said. “It has a really fantastic downtown, it has a good mix of commercial and residential uses and has great transit downtown, and so I think it has a lot of aspects in terms of places that have good potential for having a successful bike share program.”
Randi Perry, a 30-year-old Campbell resident and city of San Jose analyst, recently took a bike to the Diridon Station where she jumped aboard Caltrain and rode up to a San Francisco Giants game. She’s only used the Ford GoBike a few times, she said, but her experience has been nothing but positive.
“It’s been simple, easy,” she said. “It’s great that they have an app, and I can connect it to my Clipper card. I can walk outside my office and grab a bike. It’s all been very positive.”
Jean-Marie White, 46, director of engineering at Netflix, has been a longtime user of the program. He said he signed up for the annual pass and uses the GoBike several times a week, mainly to get around downtown San Jose.
“I live about one mile from downtown,” he said. “I usually walk, but the bikes allow me to extend my reach a little bit. I find that Ford GoBikes are incredibly flexible from that standpoint; it’s like freedom, you don’t have to worry about locking your own bike in downtown.”
Ramirez, Perry and White all have their own bicycles but prefer using the GoBike for safety and convenience.
“It’s just a lot more hassle having to babysit my own bike or having to worry about someone stealing a wheel, which has happened to me, too,” Ramirez said.
He lamented that the program has become somewhat of a “political issue,” with some people in his neighborhood protesting the presence of docking stations and others vandalizing the bikes.
“It’s becoming this gentrification fight,” he said. “I think a lot of that is people aren’t informed about what the program is. It’s unfortunate. I just think it’s a program for everyone, not just for people who can afford it.”
How it works
So what is the GoBike and how does it work? The program requires riders to first sign up online or through its mobile app. They can walk up to any docking station, pay for either a single ride ($3), day pass ($9.95) or annual membership ($149) and take a bicycle out for 30- or 45-minute intervals. The bikes can be returned to any GoBike docking station.
The bicycles are custom-made and designed to withstand the wear and tear of being ridden multiple times a day in an urban environment, Simons said. They come equipped with sturdy tires and gears, fenders and adjustable seat posts.
Riders are responsible for the bicycles and are subject to a standard $1,200 fee if they lose the bikes or fail to return them, Simons said. But there is an option to return faulty bikes at no charge to the rider. And riders won’t be held liable if their bicycle is stolen and a police report filed, Simons added.
The program was established in August 2013 as Bay Area Bike Share with 700 bicycles in 70 stations, 16 of those stations in San Jose and the others in San Francisco, Mountain View, Palo Alto and Redwood City. It was publicly funded through government grants and operated by a private company named Alta Bicycle Share, under management of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in partnership with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Alta was later acquired by Motivate, which then rebranded the program as a private system that would operate at no cost to local cities, said Ryan Smith, bikeshare coordinator for San Jose. After signing on Ford as a sponsor, and later Alaska Airlines, Motivate launched the new program this past June as Ford GoBike. It went live in San Jose in mid-July.
“This, as it was a public system, was intended as a pilot program to see how it would work and be sustainable in the long term,” Smith said. “Motivate offered to continue the same idea, but pay using a private sponsorship model, what they thought was going to be a sustainable program in the Bay Area.”
Simons said the Ford partnership “means that the program is available to the region at no cost to taxpayers.” Revenue from the fees goes first toward covering Motivate’s operating expenses, which, according to Simons, can include anything from bike repairs to renting bike storage warehouses.
The rest of the funds go to the MTC to distribute to cities that host the program. Smith said San Jose hasn’t yet received any money from the program, but it’s too early for that. In the future, the city is looking to reinvest the revenue into transportation programs or bike lane improvements and enhancements, Smith said. But, it’s unclear how much money the city will reap from the program, and that’s OK, he said.
“We’re not really looking at it as something that will bring revenue to the city,” he said. “We’re more looking at it as a great opportunity to have bike share in San Jose and to offer alternative ways for people to get around the city.”
And then there’s the Ford component. Some wonder why an established car company is backing a bike sharing initiative. One answer is that car ownership among young city residents is on the decline and car manufacturers are taking heed. General Motors, Ford and BMW are among companies adjusting their business model to reach a new customer base: the folks moving to cities and no longer buying their cars.
Alan Hall, Ford’s technology communications manager, said the company is rebranding its mission in recognition of rapid urbanization and the shift toward digital services, both of which are dramatically impacting the auto industry. As a result, Ford has created a Smart Mobility subsidiary to focus on developing and investing in solutions to help counter the challenges its customers face while simultaneously strengthening its business model, Hall said.
“We saw that as Ford Motor Company, our DNA really was about providing accessible transportation, so it was built around this personal ownership model,” he said. “Ford Smart Mobility was focused on a new growing model, which was shared access. A lot of people are moving into cities, and we don’t offer a product that fits their needs, so that’s where we saw two opportunities. One is to help solve these growing trends, and it’s also a new business opportunity.”
He said the automaker has a dedicated team that meets with city leaders in an effort to come up with customized solutions to issues such as smog, traffic or accessibility. Ford chose the Bay Area to pilot its initiatives partly because the company already has a lab in Palo Alto and partly because of the region’s progressive approaches to improving mobility.
To that end, the company agreed to invest not only in Motivate’s bike share system, but also the commuter shuttle service Chariot, which it recently acquired and offers in San Francisco, with plans to eventually expand to other cities. The service can take as many as 14 passengers from their home to work during commute hours.
“What we’ve determined is you can take up to 10 personally owned vehicles off the road per Chariot van, so you’re increasing the carrying capacity in the van as well as serving customers who previously didn’t have access to transportation and commuting options,” Hall said.
Sven Beiker, a lecturer in management at the Stanford Business School and managing director of Silicon Valley Mobility, a consulting firm in Palo Alto, pointed out it’s not just Ford that has jumped on the “mobility services” bandwagon; many automakers are heading in that direction. He views it as an experimentation phase for automakers to see what sticks as they try to supplement their traditional product offerings.
“Every car company is trying to figure out what do consumers want regarding their mobility, and the car companies do understand that it’s going to be a mix. Yes, you will sell cars, but consumers want to be mobile much more than they want to own an automobile. In the future it might be you own a car, you’re stuck. If you have more options, then you’re happy.”
Publicity may be another factor in Ford’s decision to sponsor the program, Beiker theorized. Slapping its signage on bicycles conveys the message that the company is innovative and sustainable. He compared it to the decals automakers place on racing cars at competitive sporting events such as Formula One or Nascar.
“The bicycle is not the same as an automobile, but still it’s about demand and how you meet that demand more efficiently,” Beiker said.
The GoBike program is a good start, he said, albeit with much room for improvement. But, it does what it aims to do well: offer a supplemental option for urbanites to get from one point to another efficiently, in addition to the Chariots and Ubers and Lyfts.
“Sometimes it might be faster to take a bike than Uber,” he said.
The Ford GoBike program offers a one-time $5 annual membership rate for low-income residents who qualify. To learn more, visit fordgobike.com/pricing/bikeshareforall. Motivate also offers a program that allows riders to purchase helmets at a discounted price online or at local bike shops.
To learn more about GoBike, visit fordgobike.com.