After outpouring of donations, Hamilton's bike share system gets new council support

There's a glimmer of hope for Hamilton's bike share program thanks to tens of thousands of dollars donated so far, and a change of heart from some city councillors now that tax dollars aren't involved.

Coun. Sam Merulla will move giving a not-for-profit an 8-month contract with donated dollars

SoBi left bikes at Hamilton city hall over the weekend to demonstrate their support for the program. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

There's a glimmer of hope for Hamilton's bike share program thanks to tens of thousands of dollars donated so far, and a change of heart from some city councillors now that tax dollars aren't involved.

The Patrick J. McNally Charitable Foundation has pledged $100,000 to help run the program after Uber abandoned the contract, and SoBi lovers have privately donated nearly $70,000 so far in an online campaign. That means Hamilton Bike Share Inc. (HBSI) is on the road to having enough to run the program for another eight months — enough time for the city to find a permanent third party to run the system.

Sam Merulla, Ward 4 (east end) councillor, will move reconsidering the SoBi issue on Wednesday. Instead, he wants staff to negotiate and enter into an agreement with HBSI. Merulla voted against using ward-specific capital dollars last week to keep SoBi alive for a few months, saying the city couldn't afford to spend tax money on it.

"I support the bike share program, but it has to be self sustaining," he said.

Bikes line the steps of city hall on the weekend. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Hamilton's bike share program, which has more than 26,000 users, is due to end today.

The program dates back to 2014, when city council voted to spend a one-time $1.6 million Metrolinx grant to buy the bikes and stations. It signed a contract with Brooklyn-based Social Bicycles LLC to operate the system, and in 2018, Jump Mobility bought Social Bicycles. Not longer after, Uber bought Jump.

HBSI, a not-for-profit, ran the system through a subcontract with Social Bicycles/Jump until last May, when Uber took over operations. HBSI has remained involved through the Everyone Rides Initiative, which uses an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant to provide discounted memberships to low-income residents, as well as accessible trikes.

The city and Uber signed a one-year operating agreement in February, but in May, Uber wrote the city saying economic pressures from COVID-19 was forcing it to walk away as of June 1. City lawyers are looking at legal options to hold Uber accountable for breaking the contract.

In the meantime, Coun. Nrinder Nann of Ward 3 (central lower city) moved a motion last Wednesday to spend a combined $400,000 from the capital reserves of Wards 1, 2 and 3 to pay HBSI to run the program until the end of the year. After a 15-hour meeting and a contentious debate, that failed in an 8-8 tie vote. Instead, councillors voted to put the bikes in storage.

Over the weekend, SoBi supporters donated nearly $63,000 in the online campaign, and some left more than 100 bicycles at city hall on Saturday.

SoBi fans left more than 100 bikes at Hamilton city hall on Saturday and Sunday. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Now, in a May 31 letter to council, HBSI said it "is in a position, both financially and operationally, to assume bike share operations in Hamilton for the next nine months. We are requesting that the City of Hamilton grants us permission to operate the system, starting as soon as possible after June 1, 2020."

There will still be some political hurdles on Wednesday. Two-thirds of council must agree to reopen the issue, and councillors still have to agree to hand an agreement to HBSI, rather than going through the usual procurement process.

Jason Farr (Ward 2, downtown), who helped secure the McNally Foundation donation, isn't too worried.

"I would suggest we're good to go," he said. 

"My feeling was this went way beyond 26,300 members."

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, more than 600 people have signed up for the bike share program.


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