Baltimore Bike Share program hampered by thefts, lack of returns

When Baltimore launched its $2.36 million Baltimore Bike Share system last fall, officials said the program would begin with 200 bicycles at 20 stations, then expand to 500 bicycles at 50 stations in the spring.

Officials have pushed back the program’s expansion to this fall, blaming a delay in receiving a steel component for the bike docks from the manufacturer.

But the program has also been plagued by a high rate of the bikes stolen or otherwise not returned — so many that Corps Logistics, the subcontractor that operates the program and maintains the bikes, has devoted two employees solely to bike recovery, dispatching them daily around the city to pick up bikes left leaning against trees or discarded in alleys.

Reviews of the system by The Baltimore Sun on three different days and times last week showed fewer than a third of the 200 bicycles were available at docks across the city — a much lower percentage than was available in other cities with similar programs.

James Decker, the city’s Bike Share coordinator, said the more than 130 absent bikes in each case could have been in use or undergoing routine maintenance. He added that the app might not be reporting accurately the number of bicycles at each station.

The Sun counted 53 bicycles available across the city on the bike share app on Tuesday afternoon, 56 on Wednesday afternoon and 61 on Thursday morning.

The bikes cost $2 to rent for a 45-minute single trip or $15 for a monthly pass, which provides an unlimited number of 45-minute rides for 30 days.

The percentage of bicycles available in Baltimore’s bike share system last week was more than 40 percent lower than on the Philadelphia bike-share app, Indego, after which Baltimore officials modeled their program.

Philadelphia, which launched its program three years ago, has 1,200 bikes at 117 stations. One morning last week, the Indego app showed 879 of those bicycles, or 73 percent, available at stations around the city.

The Philadelphia record for the most bikes in use at once — more than 70 percent — came in September 2015, when Pope Francis visited the city.

“That was a very unusual circumstance,” said Aaron Ritz, that city’s transportation programs manager. “It was pretty cool to see those numbers.”

About 100 out-of-service Baltimore Bike Share bicycles awaited maintenance last week at Corps Logistics, the Westport-based firm contracted by the Canadian vendor Bewegen to maintain and operate the system. The firm has 465 Bike Share bicycles, according to Jim Duffney, Corps Logistics founder and CEO.

He said his dozen or so bicycle mechanics — most of them homeless veterans hired from The Baltimore Station, a residential treatment center for homelessness and addiction — repair and return about 25 bicycles per day into the service.

Duffney said the Baltimore Police Department has been a great help. They know to call him on his cell phone when they see one, no matter where or how late at night, he said.

In some cases, he said, all the bicycles need is an hourlong charge to be returned to service; in others, a damaged bicycle might need more maintenance.

To speed up that down time, Duffney designed a trailer that charges the bicycles on the go, so they won’t have to come back to the workshop. The bike stations charge the bicycles, he said, but not as quickly.

It’s rare that a bicycle goes missing entirely, Duffney said, because they’re all outfitted with GPS. Neither Corps Logistics nor the city would provide the number of bicycle thefts.

A large dry-erase board in Corps Logistics’ building showed 103 bicycles “on the street” as of July 12. Duffney said he couldn’t provide an updated number because they’re routinely being moved around the system.

The 100 or so in the parking lot were awaiting “general maintenance,” he said. “They get a lot of ride pressure.”

Baltimore police don’t keep a count of specific bike-share bicycle thefts, spokesman T.J. Smith said. Officers often will refer the bikes they find directly to Duffney without taking a report, Smith said.

“We aren’t taking an inordinate amount of reports for stolen bikes,” Smith said. “Some might be taken or left discarded. They might not be reported as a theft.”

“There’s no doubt that it happens,” he added. “We’ve made arrests.”

In one case, Smith said, a juvenile was caught on video “viciously rocking” a bike and wrenching it from its dock, before police arrived to arrest him.

“A citizen filmed him, and officers able to get there and able to get an arrest,” he said.

One juvenile who has been charged with theft has been assigned to do his required community service with Corps Logistics, helping maintain bikes, Duffney said.

The transportation department is “actively working with [Bewegen] to continue to enhance security measures to safeguard the system,” Decker said. He did not elaborate on those measures.

“Some amount of theft or vandalism occurs in every bike share program,” Decker said in his statement. “To combat this, the Department of Transportation selected equipment with always-on GPS and is working with the Baltimore City Police Department to address any issues.”

Capital Bikeshare in Washington has 2,500 bicycles at about 250 stations and is continually expanding, according to program manager Kim Lucas. It’s part of a larger regional system with 4,000 bicycles and 460 stations across five jurisdictions, including Montgomery County.

The Washington program uses different bicycles without GPS. Lucas said 56 have been lost in the seven years the system has been operating.

Usually when citizens see the distinctive bikes, she said, they simply return them to a bike-share station. She said most maintenance can be done at the stations in the field rather than taking the bikes out of circulation.

“They don’t have to come back to the warehouse most of the time,” Lucas said.

Decker said the Baltimore Bike Share program has exceeded the city’s initial projections. More than 11,000 people have used the system, taking more than 37,000 trips totaling 56,000 miles.

The city received $2.8 million in state and federal grants to launch the first phase the program.

The system’s pedelec bikes, which have a small electric motor that makes pedaling easier, earned the program the 2017 International Innovative Transportation Solutions Award from the Women’s Transportation Seminar, an international group dedicated to advancing women in transportation.

The pedelec bikes are great for riders, said Paul DeMaio, principal at MetroBike LLC, a bike-share consulting firm. But they naturally require more upkeep than non-electric ones.

“I think it's worth it, because pedelec bikes can get folks who are not bicyclists to become bicycle riders,” DeMaio said.

Capital Bikeshare requires its operator, a firm called Motivate, to maintain a 50 percent bike-to-dock ratio, said DeMaio, who helped design the Arlington, Va. portion of it.

Last week, the ratio of bike-share bikes to docks in Baltimore was between 14 and 16 percent, according to The Sun’s review.

DeMaio, who also has advised Nice Ride Minnesota and Bycyklen in Copenhagen, said a low number of bicycles could stem from any number of issues, including a lack of maintenance staff, an outsize amount of vandalism or mechanical issues with the fleet.

Liz Cornish, executive director of the Baltimore-based advocacy group Bikemore, said Baltimore Bike Share’s biggest need is a private sponsor to invest in the system to allow it to grow as needed.

Cornish, who also serves on the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Commission, a group of volunteers tasked with designing the city’s Bicycle Master Plan and advocating for bicycle infrastructure, said there is a demand in Baltimore for bike sharing.

“Ultimately, when I look at the systems that have been more successful out of the gate, what I saw was a major cash infusion in the beginning,” Cornish said. “We’re just not there yet today, but this is one of the things I see going well and headed in the right direction.”

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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