City looks for ways to keep SoBi spinning after company announces plan to shut it down

The company that runs Hamilton's SoBi bike share program plans to stop offering the service as of June 1, says a new memo at Hamilton city hall.

The company says the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to make a decision

City councillors learned in an email this week that Social Bicycles LLC, now known as JUMP, is pulling out of its Hamilton contract months early. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The company that runs Hamilton's SoBi bike share program says COVID-19 is forcing it to permanently shut down the service as of June 1, and some city councillors are vowing to find a way to keep the popular program alive.

Social Bicycles LLC, which is owned by Uber Inc., told the city it will pull out of its contract and stop offering the service within the next two weeks, said Jason Thorne, general manager of planning and economic development, in an email to councillors Monday.

The move comes after the company signed a one-year contract extension with the city, which wouldn't end until Feb. 19, 2021. The city owns the bicycles and stations, which it purchased with a one-time Metrolinx grant of $1.6 million, but Social Bicycles LLC runs the service through an operating agreement.

The city, Thorne said, is "seeking clarification on their position and reminding them of their contractual obligations to the city." Thorne and his staff will discuss it more at a May 20 council meeting.

Uber says COVID-19 losses have forced its hand. 

"As a result of the challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been forced to make the very difficult decision to shut down all remaining bike and scooter operations, including in the City of Hamilton," a spokesperson said via email.

"We are disappointed to be sharing this news, and are engaging with the city officials to discuss transition and will share more soon. We continue to believe that micromobility is a critical part of the urban landscape, and that it will only become more important as cities look to recover from the current crisis."

SoBi Hamilton officially launched in 2015 with a gathering at Gore Park. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Jason Farr, Ward 2 councillor, says he's disappointed, and he's ready to discuss the city operating the bike share program. The program is green, healthy and accessible, he said, and the payoff exceeds dollars and cents.

"We have a lot to celebrate with SoBi, and it would be a shame if we didn't take the time to consider every component of the SoBi argument and not just the fiscal component," he said.

"We've exceeded all expectations with SoBi in this town, and I'm so proud of it."

The program, which began in January 2015, offers 825 smart bikes at 130 docking stations across the city. Earlier this year, the program tweeted that it has 33,000 members, and even on frigid winter days, it has more than 100 riders.

Last year, SoBi added a trike as part of the Everyone Rides Initiative, which also offered "pedal passes" for $3 every three months for those who couldn't afford the regular $15 per month membership fee.

In 2018, Uber Technologies Inc. partnered with Social Bicycles LLC, now known as JUMP, to offer electric bicycles and motorized scooters. Montreal launched a JUMP electric bike and scooter pilot program last year, although unlike with the Hamilton bike share program, the city has had issues with people leaving the bikes and scooters in inappropriate places.

Social Bicycles has become JUMP, owned by Uber Inc., and the company launched a pilot program with e-bikes and e-scooters in Montreal last year. Montreal has started ticketing people who leave the bikes and scooters around the city. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Mayor Fred Eisenberger isn't happy about the news either. The contract doesn't expire until next year, he said, so the city will pursue what can be done about that. 

"If we cannot find an arrangement with Uber, their current operator, to withhold their commitment to the contract, we need to figure out a way of making it happen locally," he said. 

"It's very popular, and I see no reason why it shouldn't continue. Whatever happens, we're going to find a way to ensure this facility, these bikes, these stands, will continue to be functional."

Peter Topalovic, program manager of sustainable mobility, said the city hasn't paid any operational costs for the program since 2015. Under a new contract, it would likely have to cover those costs.

"The deal with Social Bicycles LLC/Uber Inc. was unique," he said in an email.

Farr said city staff will present a transportation plan centred around the COVID-19 pandemic on May 27, and the bike share program will likely be part of that.

The city council meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday and will air on the city's YouTube channel.



Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca