SoBi users want the program to continue in Hamilton, no matter who runs it
'We need to be mentally prepared that they're simply going to walk away,' one councillor says of Uber
Fans of Hamilton's bike share program are banding together to try to keep it alive after Uber Inc. told the city it was pulling out as of June 1.
Cycle Hamilton has launched an online petition that's gathered about 3,700 signatures since last night, says the non-profit's co-chair, Jay Krause. The goal, he says, is to urge Uber to fulfil its contractual obligation to the city and operate the SoBi program until next February. After that, the group wants the city to insure the program's survival regardless of who operates it.
Since its 2015 launch, the bike share program has exceeded expectations and become "a driver for economic development," Krause said. People use it for work, for leisure, and as a "last mile" solution.
"Bike share is not only an amenity in our city, it is a piece of critical infrastructure that has a vast impact on our city," said Krause, who co-chairs Cycle Hamilton with Chelsea Cox. Cox is also executive director of Hamilton Bike Share, a not-for-profit that until recently handled operations via a subcontract. Cox isn't involved in Cycle Hamilton's efforts around the bike share program, Krause said.
The SoBi program "is very individual in how people experience it, and how they see it," he said. "But it really does have an outsized impact on the community."
Many city councillors agreed Wednesday, but differed on whether the city should spend money to take over the program itself.
Council discussed a staff report with the recent history. Last Friday, Brooklyn-based Social Bicycles LLC wrote the city to say the COVID-19 pandemic was forcing it to walk away from the Hamilton contract.
In 2018, Social Bicycles LLC became Jump Mobility, and Uber bought Jump the same year. This month, Jump was acquired by Lime, a company that runs e-scooter programs in numerous cities. The city wanted to negotiate a five-year contract with Jump in late 2018, a staff report says, and Jump agreed in principal. Then late last year, the report says, Jump said it only wanted to renew for two years, and in February, the city and Jump signed a one-year agreement.
In the May 15 letter, Social Bicycles LLC said it would help the city wind down operations, including collecting the bikes, taking inventory, "or other mutually agreeable tasks." It also volunteered to introduce Hamilton to other companies that could operate the service.
Uber's contract with the city ends Feb. 19, 2021. The city is exploring its legal options right now, said Mike Kyne, Hamilton's deputy solicitor, although taking an American company to court will be complicated.
Lloyd Ferguson, Ward 12 (Ancaster) councillor, said the pandemic seems like a convenient excuse. He suspects Uber is having problems and is just cutting its cheapest losses.
"I think we need to be mentally prepared that they're simply going to walk away," he said.
Unless Uber changes its mind, as of June 1, the bikes will stop working. Those who paid annual memberships will simply be out the money, said Jason Thorne, general manager of planning and economic development.
The city owns the roughly 900 bicycles and 130 stations, which it purchased with a one-time $1.6 million grant from Metrolinx. Thorne said the city is looking for a place to store the infrastructure if it needs to be pulled off the road. The space has to be large, so it's not easy.
Partnering with Hamilton Bike Share is an option, Thorne said. As for user data, the city has access to "aggregated data" it uses to make transportation decisions, he said. Uber has the information around individual users and their accounts.
There were mixed views about whether the city should look at operating it. Mayor Fred Eisenberger urged council not to rule out taking over the operations. Coun. Sam Merulla (Ward 4, east end) said the city is already looking at a shortfall of more than $23 million caused by the pandemic.
The staff report says operating the program costs $50,000 to $65,000 per month, or about $700,000 per year.
"There was never any intention to put money toward this," Merulla said, and now, "we don't have that much of it left."
"I look forward to finding some sort of solution to this without it costing a penny to city of Hamilton taxpayers."
Ryan McGreal, a local transit advocate, was one of the program's first members. He says he's "agnostic" about who runs it. He just wants it to continue.
"It exceeded everyone's expectations," he said. "It's exceeded beyond even the most enthusiastic imaginings of its supporters."