As the Baltimore Bike Share system languished earlier this year, the program’s vendor billed the city more than half a million dollars for operational costs “highly beyond the initial level” and also asked the city to write a bulk theft report for more than 100 missing bicycles so it could file an insurance claim.
But the city reminded Bewegen Technologies, the Canadian vendor, in a June 15 letter that its contract limited operating costs to $1,200 per bicycle in service. Furthermore, it said creating a bulk theft report so the company could exceed a $10,000 insurance deductible “would be committing insurance fraud.”
“It is the responsibility of Bewegen to replace the 109 lost bicycles,” city purchasing agent Erin Sher Smyth wrote. “Please provide a timeline for replacement.”
The letter was among more than 900 pages of emails, obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request, that provide a behind-the-scenes look at the bike share program’s demise and its eventual replacement with the Bird and Lime scooter pilot agreement.
Among the other findings from the emails and a follow-up interview with city transportation officials:
» One sponsor, the University of Maryland BioPark, lost patience with the program and requested its sponsorship end and its station be removed because of a persistent lack of bicycles.
» The city Department of Transportation agreed to Bewegen’s request to describe the shutdown as “mutual,” despite the fact that the city had fired the company less than 24 hours before the shutdown was announced.
» City transportation officials abandoned efforts to make the system more accessible to low-income residents — and an official with the vendor suggested low-income residents simply didn’t want the bikes.
» Officials even explored the possibility of joining Washington’s successful Capital Bikeshare before choosing to try out electric scooters from Bird and Lime.
Launched with 200 bicycles in October 2016, Baltimore Bike Share never expanded as promised, crippled by theft and vandalism that resulted in a long maintenance backlog. Struggling with few working bikes at the docking stations, the program was temporarily shut down less than a year later, and then replaced in August by the pilot scooter agreements with Bird and Lime.
City Transportation Director Michelle Pourciau said in an interview that the city’s June 15 letter to Bewegen followed a meeting that left both city and company officials unhappy, recognizing “there was no easy solution, no quick fix, no low-cost option” to salvage the program.
“That was the beginning of the reality that we just weren’t going to be able to make it work,” Pourciau said.
Bewegen officials did not respond to calls or emails requesting comment.
‘I can no longer defend this program’
Riders weren’t the only ones having difficulty finding a bike at docking stations this summer. In mid-July, the University of Maryland BioPark in West Baltimore asked to end its sponsorship and have its persistently empty bicycle docking station removed.
On July 13, Nora Finn, director of UM BioPark operations and tenant services, emailed Pourciau, chief of staff Eboni Wimbush and several other city officials that she had been one of the program’s “first and strongest supporters but have lost complete confidence.”
“No bikes again at the UM BioPark!” Finn wrote. “This is a constant. I can no longer defend this program to my leadership team. It is with great upset that I ask you to kindly begin the process of unwinding UM BioPark from this program.”
On July 19, Tony Scott, special assistant to the chief of strategic alliances in the mayor’s office, emailed Wimbush: “FYI: We need someone from DOT to provide a response to the University.”
“We don’t want this issue to derail next week’s conversation with Dr. [Jay A.] Perman,” he added, referring to the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
Matt Warfield, the city planner overseeing Baltimore Bike Share, replied to Finn on July 25 with a list of actions the transportation department had taken since receiving her email.
City officials ordered Corps Logistics, Bewegen’s Baltimore-based maintenance subcontractor, to place bikes at the station on July 13, Warfield wrote. Three days later, they visited the bicycle maintenance warehouse in Westport and repeated the instruction, he said, only to be told “bikes were most likely checked out during the time of observation.”
“As a partner and sponsor of the Baltimore Bike Share System we understand how important it is that the system be a reliable transportation asset for you and your community,” Warfield wrote. “We apologize that this hasn’t always been the case.”
Councilman Eric Costello emailed Warfield on Aug. 7 to ask what was going on.
“I am not trying to pound on you here,” he wrote, “but this program has been a total disappointment.”
“I don’t disagree with you,” Warfield responded.
A ‘mutual’ divorce?
Baltimore sent a termination letter to Bewegen less than 24 hours before Mayor Catherine Pugh and Pourciau held a news conference on August 15 announcing the shutdown of the bike share program and introducing the Bird and Lime scooter pilot program to the public.
In its response, Bewegen protested that the city did not provide enough notice to remove all the bikes and stations.
Braunyno Ayotte, Bewegen’s director of business development and marketing, also pushed back on the language in the initial news release, which said the city “will be ending the current Baltimore Bike Share program.”
That statement, Ayotte said in an Aug. 15 email, “does not represent what was agreed [upon] on our call yesterday.”
“In the spirit of continuing to work in partnership on this matter,” he wrote, “can you please have this changed as per our agreement.”
The city promptly changed the press release on its website to read instead: “DOT and Bewegen will be mutually ending the current Baltimore Bike Share program.”
Asked why the transportation department had agreed to describe the shutdown as mutual, when it had fired the company the day before, Pourciau used the metaphor of a divorce.
“We’ve got to sign that divorce paper, but we’re going to pick up the kids and be nice to each other,” she said. “What you see there is maybe contract language and the deliberation that had to go on in the divorce, but that was mutually agreed to.”
‘Bikeshare is not for them’
Baltimore Bike Share offered a low-cost membership sponsored by the Downtown Partnership to address affordability issues and make the program more accessible to all city residents.
On July 9, Philip Barnes, a University of Delaware professor of public policy who was working on a review of several bike share systems’ efforts to serve low-income areas, emailed Bewegen and city transportation officials on July 9 to ask for a list of “programs/policies/efforts/strategies” Baltimore and its vendor had implemented to address equity concerns.
In his reply, Warfield said officials were focused on sustaining the struggling system rather than expanding access to it.
“At this time we are addressing ongoing operational issues with the system operator and do not have plans for expansion or addressing equity issues,” Warfield wrote on July 18. “We welcome your recommendations.”
T. Chris King, the Baltimore-based marketing adviser whom Bewegen hired around the time of the system’s temporary shutdown last fall, went a step further in an email the same day.
“We have spent many months trying to reach underserved communities around Baltimore with little response or interest,” King wrote. “The general consensus seems to be that bikeshare is not for them.”
An equity component of the dockless scooter pilot agreement — urged by Bikemore, the city’s bicycle advocacy group, the emails show — requires Bird and Lime to place a certain percentage of their scooters in low-income neighborhoods each day. It’s unclear whether they’re doing so, because the companies are not reporting data as required in the agreements with the city.
In the interview, Pourciau said she believes King was incorrect that low-income residents didn’t want bikeshare in their neighborhoods.
“I think there’s appetite everywhere,” she said.