Hamilton council will debate proposal to keep SoBi bike-share running until the end of 2020

Hamilton city councillors will debate Wednesday morning whether to chip in up to $400,000 to keep the city's bike share program going until the end of the year.

One councillor will move spending $400K from 3 ward capital reserves to pay for the program

A Hamilton city councillor says the city should take $400,000 from three ward reserve accounts to save the bike share program. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Hamilton city council will debate Wednesday morning whether to chip in up to $400,000 to keep the city's bike share program going until the end of the year.

A new staff report says the city could keep the service running after June 1 by contracting it to Hamilton Bike Share Inc., a non-profit organization that ran the service until Uber took it in house last year. 

This is "the only viable option" if the city wants to keep the service running after June 1, the report says. It would cost about $65,000 per month.

Nrinder Nann, Ward 3 (central lower city) councillor, plans to move that at the 9:30 a.m. meeting, and is offering money from her own ward's capital reserve to help keep it going.

"This buys us time as a municipality to figure out a long-term solution," she said. 

There are 26,000 Hamilton residents who use the SoBi bike share program, she said, and 600 new users have signed up since the COVID-19 pandemic began. "I really, truly see this as an urgent measure to accommodate our residents during this pandemic."

The city was caught by surprise this month when it learned that Uber would walk away from Hamilton's bike share program on June 1.

The city bought the bikes and stations with a one-time Metrolinx grant and signed a contract with the Brooklyn-based Social Bicycles LLC to operate the program. Social Bicycles enlisted Hamilton Bike Share to oversee local operations, which launched in 2015.

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. Uber and the city had just signed a one-year agreement in February, but on May 15, the company — using Social Bicycles LLC letterhead — wrote the city saying it would pull out on June 1.

City lawyers are pressuring Uber to fulfil its contract. Meanwhile, the city is scrambling to figure out what to do with the popular program, including the cost of pulling the bikes and stations off the road and putting them in storage. Councillors have an estimate for the latter option, but the report doesn't disclose it.

Money from lower-city reserves

Some city councillors said last week that they didn't support putting public dollars into the program. The city is facing, for example, a 17 per cent increase in insurance and a 15 per cent increase in its waste collection contract. Finance staff have said Hamilton risks a deficit of $22.8 million if pandemic measures ended by May 31, which now appears unlikely.

Nann said the money for SoBi should come from the special capital reserves from Wards 1, 2 and 3, for a total of $400,000. As for the budget deficit, she said, she supports pushing the provincial and federal governments for help with pandemic costs.

"We're going to need some really concentrated conversations with higher orders of government," she said.

Nine people have written to the city urging it to keep the program going. This includes the McMaster Students Union, which said the bike share program is "an essential transportation service for students."

"On behalf of more than 25,000 McMaster undergraduate students, this delegation expresses strong support for the continuation of Hamilton's bike share system," it says. 


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