Opinion: Urbanism and bike share maintenance: a review of Bay Wheels

Forget parking a bike at Ashby BART after 8 a.m. or picking one up after 8 p.m. The operators need to do a better job moving bikes around so more are available during commute hours.

I’ve been using Bay Wheels (née Ford GoBike) in the East Bay pretty regularly for the last 6 months or so. I originally bought a membership for my partner Rachel, but she lost enthusiasm when the electric bikes were pulled from the road (twice) and again when she found that the docks at Ashby BART are routinely full by 8:00 AM. I’m more of a bike enthusiast and don’t have as rigorous a commute as Rachel, so I took over the membership.

For a long while, my own bike was out of commission and I relied on Bay Wheels/GoBike to get around Berkeley, Oakland and occasionally San Francisco. I commute about 2.5 miles from South Berkeley to UC campus and I also use the bikes to get around the East Bay, to run errands, see friends and family, etc. For the TLDR crowd: in the halcyon days of abundant e-bikes, I would have given Bay Wheels/GoBike an enthusiastic A- rating. There were some problems (which we’ll get into), but the electric bikes were such a pleasure to ride. These days, with no e-bikes in sight, it’s closer to a grade-inflated B-. Because of e-bikes, but also because the bike share experience could be improved dramatically with better bike infrastructure and better bike share maintenance. Read on for details.

On paper and in practice, the East Bay is a great place for bike share. The populous parts are pretty flat and the density of people and transit (buses and trains) is low enough that a lot of local trips – to work, friends, errands and to transit – are best done by bike. I often use the bike share to get to other forms of transit, usually to BART, and I really enjoy the flexibility it affords me. I can bike to meet friends and catch a ride home with Rachel or a neighbor. If I’m groggy in the morning I can take the bus to work and ride a share bike home in the evening; when I meet friends in San Francisco, I usually ride a share bike for the last mile or so. It’s truly excellent that we can use the same bike share on both sides of the Bay, and I love how easy it is to check out an extra bike so a friend can ride along with me.

When the electric bikes were available, the bike share was even better. East Bay cyclists know that there is a gentle northward slope from Oakland to Berkeley and there are many hills to cross between neighborhoods (e.g. between Lakeshore and Temescal). The regular share bikes are pretty hefty and not so fun to ride on a slope, even a mild one. The first time I rode an electric was a revelation. The e-bikes can go as fast as my road bike, but with far less effort and no sweat. Unfortunately, the e-bikes have been pulled from the road twice. First due to complaints about locking brakes and, later, hazardous battery explosions forced Lyft (the new owners) to pull e-bikes from the road. With only vague promises about their return, I’m guessing it will be a while before we can enjoy the e-bikes again.

Still, bike share remains an excellent way to get around the East Bay, especially if you’re already a comfortable cyclist. There are, however, some big problems, the biggest of which is the meager quality of East Bay bike infrastructure. With few protected bike lanes, fewer protected intersections and abundant potholes, even experienced cyclists like myself routinely have bumpy, frightening rides. Drivers are often aggressive and mean-spirited, which is a big disincentive for novice riders, and a recent Berkeley PD campaign to ticket cyclists on bike boulevards underscores the depth of our immersion in car culture. But that’s a subject for another time, so let’s get back to Bay Wheels.

My main complaints with Bay Wheels relate to management and maintenance. The bikes themselves are in pretty good shape; since the rebrand, Lyft introduced a new, lighter bike and broken seats, shifters or brakes are much rarer than they were in the GoBike days. However, a bike share requires constant management and maintenance to be reliably useful and Bay Wheels management in the East Bay has been lackluster. If you think about how a bike share gets used – most heavily in commute hours and less during the rest of the day – it’s clear that bikes will bunch up at BART stations in the morning and at residential stations in the evening. All bike shares pay workers to recirculate the bikes, to take them from common destinations (Ashby BART in the morning) to common starting points (that dock near your apartment).

bikes at bart
Photos by Avi Flamholz.

Lyft calls their bike-recirculating employees “bike valets.” The name is on-point because the valet service seems to be a rare luxury. If I leave home after 8 AM, the docks are usually full up at Ashby BART. Which is fine, I suppose, because there are rarely any bikes left at the Woolsey street dock near my apartment anyway. If I come home after 6:30, the Woolsey dock is sometimes full and I need to walk 10 minutes from San Pablo Park. Since I commute to UC campus, I have lots of choices and I can make it work. But for Rachel and others who would rely on Bay Wheels for longer and less flexible commutes, this pattern makes the bike share unreliable and, as such, nearly unusable.

To check whether my experience reflects reality, I wrote a program to download Bay Wheels station data continuously for a month. Pleasingly, the Bay Wheels API will tell you exactly how many bikes and open docks are at each station whenever you ask. As you can see from the graphic above, the Bay Wheels dock at Ashby BART fills up just after 8 a.m. on weekdays and empties out just after 7 p.m. If you want to bike to Ashby BART after 8 a.m., bring your own bike cuz there are no docks for you there. If you want to ride home from Ashby BART after 8 p.m., good luck: there are rarely any bikes available. We see a similar pattern in reverse at Woolsey St. – bikes disappear by 8 a.m, and the station can fill up by 7 p.m.

It makes no sense to let the Ashby station fill up at 8 a.m. since commuters aiming for the 8:12 train can’t rely on Bay Wheels to get to BART. Moving bikes from BART stations to residential docks at 7:45 a.m. would make Bay Wheels more reliable and also greatly increase the number of commuters who can use on Bay Wheels since it would give them both a bike and dock to use. Emptying the docks near BART stations just one time could double the capacity of the bike share during commute hours. By the same token, driving some bikes back to Ashby BART after 8 p.m. would allow folks on a later schedule to rely on the bikes for their commutes and social plans. The fact that the stations are empty or full at such predictable times implies that very little “valeting” is going on.

Ideally, a bike share station would be half-full: a half-full station has plenty of bikes and plenty of free docks. I took a look at the data to see whether Bay Wheels stations are approximately half-full, but they are not. Rather, I found that a large number of East Bay stations show similar patterns to the Ashby BART station: oscillating between empty and full at predictable times of the day. This is clearly the case at several East Bay BART stations including Rockridge, Macarthur, West Oakland and 19th Street BART. It’s also true for residential docks near those stations, including the docks on Alcatraz Ave, Dover St., 40th St and Broadway, among others.

This is a serious impediment for riders who want to rely on the Bay Wheels as a daily transit service. Not only because Bay Wheels’ management failures make it hard to ride to BART, but also because the share bikes are transit. Like a bus or a train, bike shares are a publicly-funded shared resource that enables us to get around. At its best – when a bike is available to take us to an open dock near friends, errands, or job – Bay Wheels is a very good and very affordable way to get around the Bay Area. But inadequate bike circulation means we can’t rely on bikes or docks being available when we need them. Based on the data I collected, this is an especially big problem at East Bay stations and particularly bad at stations near BART or in primarily residential neighborhoods.

Now you might say, “Who cares? Bay Wheels is a revenue-positive service owned by Lyft, not a public transit system! They can do whatever maximizes their profit within the law.” But Bay Wheels operates under exclusive contracts with Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco and San Jose as the sole provider of docked bikes. That exclusive license to use public space for docks is very valuable, which is made clear by how aggressively Lyft is litigating the contract in San Francisco. Moreover, municipalities draw on public funds to pay staff coordinating with the bike share. So we have a lot of skin in the game and should have a say in how Bay Wheels operates. We should demand better.

The source code for making the figures here is available at github.com/flamholz/baywheels-monitor.

Avi Flamholz lives in South Berkeley and recently graduated from the Molecular and Cell Biology PhD program at UC Berkeley.