Vancouver’s long wait for its bike-share system is a sign of growing pains for an industry that has exploded in the past four years from nothing to 25,000 bikes in more than 30 cities in North America.
The growing pains didn’t just affect Montreal’s PBSC Urban Solutions, often called Bixi after its first bike system, which filed for bankruptcy protection last week.
They also hit the American company, Alta Bicycle Share of Portland, that made Bixi its major supplier as it morphed from a small urban-design consulting firm to the only company in the United States promising a one-stop shop for all things bike-share.
Now, many cities are in limbo.
“We’re learning a lot of lessons,” Mia Birk, the president of Alta Planning + Design, said Thursday. “It’s an exciting time. We’ve experienced a lot of challenges.”
Bixi struggled to develop a workable system, which in turn resulted in payment delays from cities unhappy about the glitches.
Alta, in partnership with Bixi, managed to land high-profile contracts with New York, Chicago and San Francisco, but those programs have all started later than expected. Seattle, Portland and Vancouver had hoped to be in operation last year, but are still waiting for Alta to come through with a start date.
Part of the problem is Alta doesn’t know exactly where its bikes, docks and kiosks will now come from. Ms. Birk said the company is looking at all the options, including new suppliers.
“I don’t think anybody knows right now what’s happening next,” said Holly Hauser, the executive director of Puget Sound Bike Share, a Seattle non-profit that had committed to Alta/Bixi to supply its own system.
But the delays haven’t been just because of Bixi. Other components of new systems have also been held up, particularly searches for sponsors in cities such as Portland and Vancouver.
That has some observers – including four former members of the management team at Alta Bicycle Share who have left recently to form a new consultancy – saying Alta took on a lot, maybe too much.
“It all happened really fast and I don’t think they were expecting it,” said Michael Anderson, the news editor at BikePortland.org. “Alta is still one of the premier bike-planning and design companies but it was dwarfed by the bike-share part.”
The company now has 500 people working in its bike-share programs, which started with Washington and Melbourne, Australia, in 2010 and now run in eight cities. There are only 125 people in the planning and design side.
Brodie Hylton, Alta’s director of operations for the bike-share division until last fall, said it was a case of cities coming to Alta, asking for the company to take on the jobs.
“When you’re a consultant, it’s hard to say no. Cities came to them and said, ‘Can you do this and this?’ I think they were a victim of their own success.”
Mr. Hylton, along with former Alta Bicycle Share president Alison Cohen, the former chief financial officer, and the former director for launches of new systems, created a new company in November called Bicycle Transit Systems.
That new company is going to stay away from trying to do everything for everyone, which Mr. Hylton says is a poor model for both bike-share companies and the cities that contract with them.
“Maybe cities can get better service, marketing, data, and prices if it’s not all together.”
Mr. Hylton said those kinds of turnkey operations mean companies sometimes can’t be flexible or they are taking on work where they don’t have expertise and have to subcontract.
Alta has subcontracted Vancouver’s sponsorship work to Effix, the Montreal company that did Bixi’s sponsorship work in that city.
Many other cities, particularly smaller ones, have chosen a different model of operations from the Alta/Bixi turnkey operation.
Some, such as Fort Worth, Tex., run the bike-share system as part of the city’s operations. Many more are now going the route of places such as Minneapolis and Houston, where a local non-profit manages the system locally and contracts with a bike company to supply the hardware.
Houston Bikes director William Rub said non-profits can tap into local relationships in the city for sponsorships and grants. They’re also flexible in whom they choose as their bike supplier.
Houston chose B-Cycle, the system manufactured by Trek Bicycle. (Trek, unlike Bixi or Alta, has stuck with just the hardware side of the system.)
“We’re just grateful that we chose the vendor that we chose,” said Mr. Rub. “We’re doing very well. We have more checkouts per week than we expected.”