Bike sharing spreads, as Houston waits on motorized scooters
Scooters may be scarce along Houston-area sidewalks and streets, but it has made for a boom time for bike sharing.
Use of Houston B-Cycle, which has grown annually for the past five years, continues to climb as more stations come online and more people, both one-time users and frequent riders, grab a bike and go.
For the first three months of 2019, the number of trips — each time a bicycle is checked out of a kiosk — topped 51,500, a 65 percent increase compared to the same period last year. The system is on pace for more than 200,000 trips in 2019, up from the 165,000 last year.
People can purchase a single ride or monthly, even annual passes for B-Cycle. The riders then check out a bike from the 90 stations around the region. Walk-up customers who just want a single ride pay $3 for every 30 minutes. Monthly and annual pass holders get the first 60 minutes for free, and can check out bikes as frequently as they want. Returning the bikes requires simply locking it back into any kiosk.
The system has proved especially popular in Houston, even as other cities saw bike sharing use slide when motorized scooters hit the scene. In Dallas, for example, the dock-based systems were swamped out of the city when other dockless bike companies and scooters firms entered the area.
The dockless versions have come with some consternation, especially where people have complained of them cluttering city sidewalks and leading to reckless use and injuries. Austin city officials and state lawmakers are addressing some of those concerns, either with dedicated areas for dropping off scooters or legislation curtailing some of the use.
Houston has remained out of the commotion because the city lacks regulations for dockless bikes and scooters. City officials more than a year ago discussed rules changes allowing dockless bikes, but progress stalledwhen District K Councilman Larry Green, who was working on the ordinance changes, died. The proposed changes remain a work-in-progress, city officials said.
Locally, the increase in ridership is directly tied to growth in the system, B-Cycle spokesman Henry Morris said. While a host of factors determine how and where people check out bikes, Morris said the more places you can find or leave a bike, the more riders it will attract.
“When you put in a station, though, it does not get ridership right away,” he said.
Morris used the station at Morningside and Shakespeare, in Rice Village, as an example. The station opened in February 2018 as part of the third phase of expansion after B-Cycle won a $4.1 million grant in late 2016.
“People have to walk by that station 10 or 20 times before it sinks in,” Morris said. “Now that station is in our top 10.”
The use of kiosks like the one outside Rice Village Apartments is indicative of the other noticeable change in checkouts. Since the first bikes were parked in downtown Houston in 2013 at three stations, use has been dominated by recreational riders — tourists and locals who would grab a bike for a fun jaunt around Hermann Park or pick one up at the Sabine Bridge and ride along Buffalo Bayou.
For the first three months of last year, recreation represented nearly three-quarters of the trips taken, according to B-Cycle’s monthly assessment. This year, recreation trips were 55 percent of the total, largely because of the near-tripling of routine trips.
The change was expected, Morris said. As the system tripled in size to 635 bikes and 90 stations over the past two years, that meant more opportunities for people to easily find a bike and find a place to dock it.
“I use it all the time to go and get coffee or to run quick errands,” Gisele Caleron said as she grabbed a bike in the Texas Medical Center.
The downside of more quick trips by regular users, however, is a decrease in trip lengths. For the the first three months of 2018, users averaged 52 minutes with the bikes, mostly because they were being used for recreation for an average of 55 minutes. The trips between two spots by frequent users, meanwhile, average 22 minutes in 2019 so far, bringing the average time for all trips down to 40 minutes.
"I use it all the time to go and get coffee or to run quick errands" Gisele Caleron said as she checked out a B-Cycle bike sharing system bike in the Texas Medical Center on April 2.Photo: Steve Gonzales, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer
B-Cycle officials are hoping to strike a balance in which recreational and regular users are served, Morris said. Two new stations in Memorial Park have proved popular with users, similar to how the Hermann Park stations are among the most visited in the system. It also is common to see tourists and others checking out bikes in downtown, in the hopes of heading along the Buffalo Bayou trail system.
By the numbers:
B-Cycle stations: 90
Bike checkouts, January-March 2019: 51,506
Estimated pounds of carbon offset, January-March 2019: 235,000
Estimated calories burned, January-March 2019: 9.8 million
“It is a lot easier than packing up all the bikes,” Fred Moore said, adding that his wife and son sometimes grab bikes and take a ride before a visit to a museum or Astros baseball game.
Morris said B-Cycle plans to install 36 more stations as part of the Houston-Galveston Area Council grant awarded almost three years ago. Finding the right spots can be tricky, however, as the locations must be sponsored and need electrical wiring for the kiosk, without blocking sidewalks and roads.
“While we can't share the specific locations of any upcoming stations, we can definitely say that we’re working toward expansion in The Heights, Northside, Third Ward, Fifth Ward, and East End neighborhoods,” Morris said.