Upset and frustrated: SoBi users on how they count on the bike share system to get around

"I am really upset about it actually," says Carly Eisbrenner, a McMaster University medical student who uses SoBi to get to work, school and her volunteer work with Keeping Six. "It’s going to be really frustrating."

'It feels like a loss of something ... important to me'

"I am really upset about it actually," says Carly Eisbrenner, a McMaster University medical student who uses SoBi for to get to work, school and her volunteer work with Keeping Six. "It’s going to be really frustrating." (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Few people were more disappointed by Hamilton city council's decision Wednesday not to throw the bike share program a lifeline than Laura Parker and Kari Dalnoki-Veress.

The couple are professors at McMaster University — Dalnoki-Veress in physics, Parker in astronomy. Both were avid cyclists until 2014, when Danoki-Veress was hit by a car while bicycling on Aberdeen Avenue. Now he uses a scooter instead of a bike.

Parker started using SoBi because it was a better pace to match Danoki-Veress's scooter, and they ride side by side to work every day, back and forth, even in winter. So far, Parker has ridden 5,100 kilometres on a SoBi.

Both are founding members of SoBi, which meant they each got to name a bike. Hers is Astro Racer, his is Red Rider.

"I find it really upsetting," Parker said of council's Wednesday vote. "It felt spiteful. It felt like it was political rather than based on the finances."

Hamilton's bike share program dates back to 2014, when the city agreed to use a one-time $1.6 million Metrolinx grant to buy 900 bikes and accompanying stations. It signed a contract with Social Bicycles LLC in Brooklyn to operate the program, which subcontracted the job to the non-profit Hamilton Bike Share Inc.

Laura Parker has ridden 5,100 kilometres on a SoBi bike. (Laura Parker)

The bike share program launched in 2015, and 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.

On Wednesday, Coun. Nrinder Nann (Ward 3, central lower city) introduced a motion to use up to $400,000 from the capital budgets of Wards 1, 2 and 3 to fund the program until the end of the year. During that time, Hamilton Bike Share would operate it. That would buy the city some time to find a permanent solution, she said. 

That vote was an 8-8 tie, and a tied vote is a failed one. Councillors gave various reasons, including that hiring Hamilton Bike Share would be procuring a service from only one source, and that capital funds are not meant to be used as operating dollars. Most councillors who voted against it said the city can't afford the expense right now, particularly with a shortfall of more than $23 million caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The program was never supposed to cost local taxpayers money, said Coun. Sam Merulla (Ward 4, east end), and even if the money comes from ward funds, that's money from local taxpayers.

Those in favour say the program is green, economical, healthy, popular, and in Nann's words, too valuable to lose. There are 26,000 active users right now, and about 600 new users have signed up since the pandemic started. 

Council voted to keep looking for a third-party operator, although that will take months and is not guaranteed. It also plan to try to push Uber to fulfil its contract.

The Hamilton-based band Arkells led an organized SoBi ride to Tim Hortons Field, where the band was giving a concert. (Arkells)

Council also voted to spend money to put the bikes and stations in storage, either in a city building or a rented one. City staff will report back on what that will entail.

"Once a suitable storage location is identified, staff will be in a position to report back on the costs and timing for moving the bikes into storage," the city said in an email Thursday.

Here are what some other SoBi users have to say about how the change will impact them.

Carly Eisbrenner — Uses SoBi to work at the hospital

Eisbrenner, 24, is a McMaster University medical student who's doing volunteer street outreach with Keeping Six during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, she's not sure how she'll get there.

A Flamborough native, Eisbrenner has a SoBi bike station near her house in Ward 1. She rides to local hospitals where she does placements for school. She rides downtown for her volunteer work. She also rides to McMaster for her classes. The bike share program gives her flexibility to ride her bike to a class or a placement, she said, then take the bus home.

Her new options, she said, are to buy a new bicycle, or to take the bus more, which is harder now because of the reduced service during the pandemic.

"I'm kind of left in a bit of a spot here where I don't have a bike to use when SoBi goes out of service on Monday."

Ashley Pleasant — Uses SoBi on the Mountain

Pleasant lives in Ward 7 on the central Mountain, and has regularly descended the Wentworth Stairs and hopped on a SoBi there. She and her partner used them every month to get to Art Crawl. Pleasant doesn't have a car, and recently, with the pandemic and its transit restrictions, was going to use it to get to work near McMaster too.

Pleasant didn't learn to ride a bike until her late 20s. Her friend loaned her a bicycle for training. Otherwise, she's mainly used SoBi bikes. She says she'll probably buy a bike now. 

She's disappointed, she said, but "to be perfectly honest, it's not super surprising coming from my city council. I was hopeful but not naive."

Dr. Tim O'Shea — Uses SoBi to visit patients

O'Shea is one of several in the medical field who tweeted his support for the program. He uses SoBi bikes to visit patients through Hamsmart, a program that reaches people who are isolated and street involved. He's also an associate professor in the infectious diseases division at McMaster's department of medicine.

O'Shea says he puts his medical gear in a backpack or the basket of a SoBi bicycle. He doesn't have to pay for parking or worry about his bike being stolen while he's visiting a patient. Some of his patients use SoBi too, he said.

"A lot of my patients struggle to get around and hang onto bikes because there's a lot of bike theft."

O'Shea said he understands council's conundrum. "The money aspect is important and the city has to think about how they're going to pay for things," he said. "But to me, this was a good return on investment."

Gabriella Christopher — Used SoBi to get to know Hamilton

Christopher, 20, moved to Hamilton three years ago to attend McMaster, and still remembers discovering the beauty of Cootes Paradise on a SoBi.

Growing up in Toronto, she didn't know much about Hamilton. Since moving here, she's heard people describe the city as dirty and gritty. But she hasn't thought so since her first time on the Desjardins Trail.

She didn't have space to store a bicycle where she was living. She also wasn't used to biking to get around. Now she bikes everywhere. She has her own bike, but still uses a SoBi to get to other transit, like the GO station.

Christopher has spent the last week encouraging her fellow students to sign a Cycle Hamilton petition to save the program. "Transit is going to be limited for a long time," she said.

The vote "feels like a loss of something that was not just important to me, but kind of part of my image of Hamilton and my image of a strong sense of community here. It's really sad … I still have some hope that there might be some future plans to revitalize something."

Ayolt de Roos — Rode 34 km on a SoBi after arriving in Canada

De Roos comes from Amsterdam, which he says is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in Europe. Bicycling is so popular there that some people own two or more bikes, and the bicycle lanes are more crowded and fast-paced than the lanes for car traffic. 

He moved to Hamilton in March 2019, made friends at a local craft brewery, and went for a ride with one of them. The friend was on a 27-speed mountain bike. De Roos was on a SoBi.

"Some uphill parts were more difficult for me than for him," de Roos said, but if his own bike didn't arrive from Amsterdam, he'd still be using a SoBi.

Bike lanes are fragmented here, he said. Often he's riding on one and "it just stops." Amsterdam "was built for cyclists and cars came second. Here it's the opposite."

"There are more people using those bikes, and more people cycling, than council seems to realize."


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