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The Orange County Transportation Authority Monday cancelled a pilot bike share program in Fullerton after an analysis showed taxpayers were subsidizing the project to the tune of nearly $800 per bicycle ride.
The Transportation Authority’s board voted unanimously to cancel the program, which was supposed to enhance first and last mile connections to the city’s train station.
Before the vote, directors and staff described the program’s many shortcomings, which included: stations that didn’t work; clunky bicycles; and the lack of a large employer in Fullerton to provide riders. As a result, total checkouts averaged only 86 trips per month, or 1.2 per bicycle.
Meanwhile, the Transportation Authority spent $700,000 in state and federal grant funds to prop up the system, which was only a year in operation, according to OCTA staff comments recorded in the December minutes of the board’s transit committee meeting.
“This was a failure,” Director Tom Tait, who is also mayor of Anaheim, said at Monday’s meeting. “And not even close to making it.”
Cities from New York to Boulder to Tel Aviv have implemented bike share programs, which usually amount to a chain of kiosks throughout the city where people can rent and return bicycles. They’re seen as helping to alleviate gridlock on city streets and increasing connectivity.
But they haven’t had the same success in Southern California as they have elsewhere. Anaheim officials made headlines in 2012 for rolling out the first bike share program in the state, only to have the vendor pull out after several of the promised stations never materialized.
Complicating things in Anaheim and for OCTA was their choice of a vendor. Both chose Irvine-based Bike Nation, which has no track record to speak of in setting up successful bike share programs. The business also attempted, but failed, to implement a system in Los Angeles.
Transportation Authority board directors knew that Bike Nation was inexperienced when they voted in in 2012 to reject bids from two other companies, including one from Wisconsin-based B-Cycle, LLC, the firm that was recommended by staff and had set up the first successful bike share program in the country along with 14 other locations, according to a Transportation Authority staff report.
Why they overruled the staff recommended company in favor of the firm with no track record is unclear. Board directors at the Oct. 22, 2012 meeting didn’t explain their decision, and Shawn Nelson, the director and county supervisor who motioned to choose Bike Nation, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
Nelson did reference the company’s offer to install additional stations and bicycles worth $2.5 million in his motion. Then Director Janet Nguyen and Peter Herzog, the only directors to vote against choosing Bike Nation, objected and pushed without success to have the transit committee review the plans again.
Another factor could be that Bike Nation had hired Curt Pringle & Associates as its lobbyist. Pringle, the former Anaheim mayor and one-time Transportation Authority director, is known to have considerable influence in Anaheim and on the Transportation Authority’s board.
But Bike Nation Chief Operating Officer Derek Freitheim laid the blame for the program’s failures squarely on the Transportation Authority, saying the agency didn’t do the kind of direct, grassroots outreach to the tens of thousands of college students in Fullerton needed to make a bike share system work. There wasn’t even a social media campaign, he noted.
“You need to have constant marketing to the community as to how the program works, how people can take advantage of it. That sort of thing,” Freitheim said.
But Freitheim also acknowledged that the plan to provide connectivity to the city train station via a bike share program was ill conceived. As a Transportation Authority staff report points out, there aren’t any large employers in Fullerton. And the largest potential pool of bike share users – students from Cal State Fullerton and Fullerton College – don’t typically commute by train.
Freitheim said he wanted to shift the program to cater more to college students, but said Transportation Authority officials rejected his marketing ideas.
Transportation Authority officials have taken issue with Freitheim’s assertions, saying the problems went beyond how the system was focused and marketed.
Several board directors mocked the bicycles as being heavy and awkward, and they complained that they weren’t able to check out bicycles from the kiosks. There were also reports that stations broke down after being washed, raising questions about the system’s durability on rainy days.
“They were basically maybe Fred Flintstone with hard rubber wheels or something,” said director Miguel Pulido.
Freitheim defended the equipment, saying that bicycles in the public realm have to be designed sturdy because they face so much potential abuse. His bicycles don’t weigh more than 43 lbs., he said.
Also, he said a company internal audit found that bicycle checkout rates were at 90 percent on the first attempt, and 97 percent on the second. The city’s power washing did affect the kiosk’s systems, but that’s because they were using a high-pressure hose that blasted water at hundreds of pounds per square inch, he said.
Freitheim has an explanation for each of his firm’s failures.
He said it took too long to get permits in Fullerton and that he couldn’t get prime locations for the kiosks. In Anaheim, hotels blocked his company from setting up stations because they were afraid of liability, and Los Angeles media rights arrangements prevented his company from doing the advertising it needed to produce revenue.
Bike Nation is currently setting up another bike share program in Long Beach that he says will be more successful. That city, he said, is so committed to a working bike share system that officials are even removing on-street parking to make way for ideal kiosk locations.
But there are other reasons why a bike share program in Long Beach will likely be more successful than in cities like Fullerton and Anahiem.
Brenda Miller, founder of PEDal, an advocacy group for bicycle riders and pedestrians, said that what Anaheim and Fullerton did with bike share is putting the “cart before the horse” because Orange County doesn’t yet have the infrastructure needed for bicycle riders to feel safe on the roads.
Unlike Orange County, Long Beach has bicycle lanes that are partitioned from the road by a curb, providing the physical barrier needed to make people feel safe riding their bikes.
“Study after study has shown people really don’t like to share the road with cars,” Miller said. “A white strip isn’t enough for people to feel safe.”
Miller says until Orange County adopts that kind of approach – designing bike lanes from the perspective of the bicycle rider and not the car driver, which is the approach recommended by the Federal Highway Administration – bike share programs simply won’t have the environment to take root.
Despite the failure of Fullerton’s program, Transportation Authority officials said it’s important to keep trying and not let their experience become a cautionary tale for other transit agencies that are considering similar programs.
“I don’t think it’s just about Orange County, it’s about the nation,” said Todd Spitzer, a Transportation Authority board member and chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.