A Cheatsheet for a Bikeshare Requirement

Government and innovation are not mutually exclusive (no, really). But because the government is spending the public’s money (or leasing/selling its assets), it’s just a bit harder than whipping out a corporate Amex to do some “solutioneering.” Bikesharing is new, and emerging technology and lessons-learned have the potential to take it to even more exciting heights. But Richard Layman argued recently that public bikesharing solicitations were stunting that potential evolution (Why Government contracting processes can really suck: bicycle sharing edition).

Long long ago in a vocational life far far away, I worked as a contract negotiator (save your hardnose-Canadian-oxymoron jokes, please), trying to ensure that the Federal government got the best value for its dollar on airplanes and helicopters (save your $600 hammer jokes, please). I am going to try to apply a bit of knowledge from that world to the complicated task of establishing a municipally-sponsored bikeshare system. They really are not as different as you might imagine.

#1 Revisit your Bicycle Master Plan, and be ruthlessly realistic about your plans. In any major program, it is essential to take a good hard look at the total lifecycle cost of a major change. See Arlington County, VA’s Bikeshare ‘Transit’ Development Plan for the current gold standard of such thorough thinking, though in my ideal world, a draft of that plan would predate the establishment of the system. But total cost is not only the funds necessary to purchase, operate, maintain, and grow your bikeshare system. You must consider the finite staff time it takes to plan and oversee the system, the other planned activities that might be delayed or dropped, and how the rest of the plan itself needs to adapt to the presence of a bikeshare system. If you don’t have a Bicycle Master Plan… Well, let’s just say you should.

#2 Figure out what’s important. So you have passed “Go” and collected your $200.  Now it is time to think long and hard about what you have, what you need, what you want, and where you can trade off. Here are some considerations, incomplete, vague, and unordered:

  • In general, where do your needs and wants permit tradeoffs between control, cost, and capability?
  • How many stations do you want, now and into the future?
  • Who will plan and decide on station siting?
  • Where are there mismatches between revenue potential and public goods to be served by the system? How can a balance be struck?
  • Do you want stations at all, or might a dockless system work for you?
  • How will users pay for their use?
  • Who will collect revenue, both operating and other sources?
  • What is the value of and authority for public space advertising, and will this be a part of the system?
  • Will bikesharing interact with other modes (transit, carshare) and programs (TDM, public health, tourism)?
  • Who has an interest in your ultimate outcome?  Because…

#3 …No bikeshare is an island.  Bikesharing is a system, and in any properly functioning system, multiple bits interact with each other. This goes far beyond the bikes and docks. Transit systems, neighboring jurisdictions, landowners, permitting agencies, and utilities are among the many parties who may affect, or are affected by, the choices you make in your bikeshare development strategy. Los Angeles surprised many people with their public-space-permit-based bikeshare system, and the choices made by LA could have implications for the plans of many other regional stakeholders.

#4 Document it for all. Your wants, needs, potential tradeoffs, and (where permitted) your budget, should all be in black and white for all to see.  Whether you are looking to establish a system with a minimal outlay of funds, want to get as many bikes on the street as possible for a given amount of money, or are willing to pay a bit more for new capabilities or enhancements, it is essential to lay it all out for potential providers.

#5 Full and open competition is good. Even apparent competition sharpens the pencils, stokes creativity, and provides credibility. When approached by a vendor with a seemingly wonderful proposal, it is always worth asking if there might be someone (or 2, or 3…) others out there willing to do better. Or perhaps your suitor might offer even more knowing that there are one or two or three others out there trying just as hard to provide your bikeshare system. If you put a lot of effort into a well-written requirement that describes exactly what you want and need, do it in a way that does not unnecessarily exclude particular solutions, cast a net far and wide for your provider, and let that net linger in the water for awhile, you will ‘net’ the very best.

#6 If you don’t know, ask an impartial expert. Just to be clear, I’m going to shout the word IMPARTIAL. In the Federally-administered RFP or concession process that I came from (that is, where you are entering into a contract or agreement directly with a Federal agency), anybody you use to help define what you want (the “requirement”) is generally barred from involvement in providing the resulting goods and services. State and local regulations often differ. But as a good business practice, consulting with an expert who does not have a vested interest in the chosen approach will help define your requirements in a way that guarantees you a preferred outcome, rather than a preferred vendor.

Fehr & Peers, Foursquare ITP, and Toole Design Group are consultancies that, as far as I know, have in-house expertise in planning a bikeshare system, but no operational role or interest in delivering a system. I have no experience or relationship with any of these firms, and listing them here does not constitute an endorsement in any way. If you are part of another firm that provides planning assistance for bikeshare systems, without any involvement in delivering bikeshare programs or systems, let me know in the comments.

And lest you think the very best bikesharing system can be defined with a bit of googling (or printing out this post), know that there is so much potential for advancement beyond what is currently deployed. Do not forestall this innovation by restricting yourself to what is easily known.  Consider what is possible, and you might just put your community into the lead of advancing bikesharing to the next generation.

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2 Responses to A Cheatsheet for a Bikeshare Requirement

  1. Half of what I think about bike share and contracting I can’t write because people don’t want critical analysis for the most part, and because we are still trying to get contracts.

    And that includes at least some of the consultancies that you mention. At a private bike share conference in March, convened by FTA and APTA, I reacted to my frustration with the nature of the presentations by stating something like “if you define everything as successful (through constantly changing definitions) then you don’t learn and you don’t improve.”

    This reaction was to how the two station system in Spartanburg, with fewer than 100 uses/week was defined as wildly successful.

    Basically the point i made at that conference is that if CMAQ and transit funds are the dominant (federal) funding sources used by typical cities, than usage in a relatively objective way has to be the primary metric used to evaluate and define success.

    Don’t get me wrong. As a bike planner I was very proud, especially given the serious funding and time constraints I was working under, of the plan I did for the western section of Baltimore County, which addresses programming, health, and other aspects of biking as transportation. E.g., the wellness benefits from bike sharing are great, and need to be calculated, but usage has got to be the leading indicator of success.

    WRT the Bike Nation deal in LA, personally I think that it could have been challenged, as it’s basically a franchise. But since we couldn’t make the financial commitment to challenge it (I don’t think Bike Nation actually has all the money, but like in NYC, they expect to be able to land a high profile sponsor), it wasn’t something we could take up.

    Same thing with Chicago (as I discussed very broadly in my blog entry).

    The thing that I haven’t written about that I am concerned about is another form of bikelash. I don’t think it will really matter with NYC. I don’t know exactly why the system is delayed (other than the f* up by PBBS/Alta in changing software providers) but it is a big deployment.

    Chicago is another case. Frankly, it should be seen as a contracting failure on the part of the city that didn’t have to be. Basically they didn’t provide enough time for either the RFP process or the proposed timeline for launch. Then it backfired. Frankly, we made those verysame points in our submitted questions, but they firmly rejected our concerns. As a result, we couldn’t bid because we knew we couldn’t make those commitments.

    WRT your point about bike plans, well I could go on and on about that too. Basically, there are a lot of gaps, and even the leading consultancies could do better.

  2. Pingback: Measuring bikeshare performance — defining “success” | bikepedantic

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