Baltimore is temporarily shutting down its $2.36 million bike-share program, which has suffered so many thefts and maintenance backups that most of the bicycles are out of service.
Baltimore Bike Share will close Sunday and reopen Oct. 15 to provide time for the installation of additional locking equipment on the bicycle docks and to prepare for an overdue expansion of the system, city officials said Tuesday.
"We wanted to let our subscribers know we're taking it really seriously," said Michelle Pourciau, the city's transportation director. "We're committed to this. We're working closely on it. We're keeping our eyes on it."
City officials have met with the system's Canadian manufacturer, Bewegen, and its local maintenance contractor, veteran-owned Corps Logistics in Westport, to discuss fixes to the problems.
Bewegen has agreed to pay for the additional locking device in the bicycle docks to prevent the bikes from being wrenched out without payment, Pourciau said. The company did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
The program launched last year with 200 bicycles for rent at 20 stations, with plans to expand to 500 bicycles at 50 stations in the spring.
The bikes cost $2 to rent for a 45-minute single trip or $15 for a monthly pass, which provides users an unlimited number of 45-minute rides for 30 days.
The program did not expand on schedule — officials blamed a delay in receiving a steel component for the bike docks from the manufacturer — and a high rate of thefts and a maintenance backlog caused bicycle shortages.
Three times in August, the Bike Share mobile app showed fewer than a third of the 200 bicycles were available at docks across the city, The Baltimore Sun found. That's a much lower percentage than was available in other cities with similar programs.
Baltimore isn't the only bike-share system to struggle with theft. Capital Bikeshare in Washington faced a similar problem in 2010. Officials Addressed it by improving the locks on its docking stations, said Paul DeMaio, a principal at MetroBike LLC, a bike-share consulting firm, who helped design the Arlington, Va., portion of the D.C. system.
"The vendor at the time paid for the modified component, which we had installed in all the docks," he said. "We did not close the entire system down. But I think that is probably a wise move, because the fleet is very important, and if they're losing bikes, they need the necessary improvements to ensure the fleet stays in place once docked."
The bicycles are outfitted with GPS technology, so the stolen or abandoned bikes were usually recovered. But thefts and other non-returns of the bicycles had become such an issue that two maintenance employees were devoted solely to bike recovery, officials said.
Bicycles are often damaged when they're ripped out of their docks or ditched in an alley, which has contributed to the maintenance backlog that leaves about 100 bicycles at a time awaiting fixes.
Having watched bicycles disappear from Bike Share docks around Baltimore over the past few months, Brian Seel thought the number shown on the app looked too high.
He said he reached out to the Baltimore Bike Share Facebook site and was told it was a "rebalancing issue" — that the missing bikes must be at another station.
So Seel, a 31-year-old software developer and bicyclist who lives in Upper Fells Point, spent two and a half hours on Labor Day riding around to count the bikes himself. He took a picture of each station and wrote about the project on his blog, Baltimore Around the World.
The Baltimore Bike Share app at the time reported 45 available bicycles, Seel wrote. The total in his count? Four.
"I was quite surprised it was that low," he said in an interview. "I knew it'd be low, but four was quite shocking."
Seel said he understands the need for a shutdown to add the new locks and work out the kinks in the system. What troubled him more than the theft problem, he said, was the attempt by Bike Share officials to explain it away. He called their communication "absolutely horrific."
"If people understand we have this issue, I don't think there'd be as much frustration as there is," Seel said. They just need to be much more upfront with it."
City transportation officials did not respond to a follow-up email seeking comment on Seel's criticisms.
Maintenance crews have been removing bicycles from the system for the past week in anticipation of the shutdown, said Jim Duffney, founder and CEO of Corps Logistics.
"We've been taking the bikes off the street for a little bit," he said. "But I'd try to keep them downtown, try to keep some bikes around the harbor for the weekend, do what I could."
Dr. George Wittenberg rides past at least three different bicycle docks on Maryland Avenue on his commute downtown from his home in Rogers Forge.
The 53-year-old physician and scientist said he saw lots of people using the system when it launched last fall, but the bike stations he's seen have been mostly empty for at least three months.
"I'm not surprised" by the shutdown, Wittenberg said. "Clearly the system has problems."
Wittenberg, a member of the bicyclist advocacy group Bikemore, said he hopes the nearly monthlong hiatus gives the city a chance to get the program on track.
"I would like to see anything that helps bicycle commuting become more prevalent in Baltimore," he said.
The system will offer free bike rides to monthly pass-holders after the relaunch, Duffney said.
"We've been proactive with those folks," he said. "The system's going to be back and better than ever."
Pourciau declined to specify how the city would manage to expand a system it has been unable to adequately supply at the current levels.
Jon Laria, chairman of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Commission, said the “proof will be in the pudding.”
"The system may have to earn some trust again, but I'm confident that'll happen in the long run," he said. "People just have to give us a little space to fix this issue and get the bikes back in order and get the system running again.
"It's absolutely the right thing to do to get the system back into reliable order," he said. "A short hiatus in the interest of a longer-term system is well worth it."
The program has faced its share of challenges, said Liz Cornish, executive director of Bikemore, which has been advising the city on the system. But the fix should allow it to be expanded as planned.
Cornish said Bikemore members would have liked to see the city move more quickly to address the problems when they first arose.
"We Hear Your Frustration Loud and Clear … Loud … And ...Clear," the group said an announcement of the shutdown to members Thursday.
But Cornish said she was happy to see it taking action to fix the program.
"We always wish for more transparency and more proactive decision-making, but the energy coming out of City Hall and the DOT is really good," she said. "We're certainly supportive of the city going back to the drawing board and coming up with a solution to keep bike share viable for the future."