Austin B-cycle, with rentals on the rise, adding bikes and stations

2:56 p.m Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 Local

Austin B-cycle, a success in its initial three years by the modest measures of bike-sharing, is expanding.

The nonprofit partner of the city of Austin will add 18 bike rental stations and 125 of its heavy, red bicycles over the next year and a half if the Austin City Council on Thursday approves an $805,033 contract that would be funded without city taxes. The expansion would include stations for the first time in the South Lakeshore Boulevard area, Clarksville and the Lake Austin Boulevard area just west of MoPac Boulevard.

The system, which began operating in and around downtown Austin in December 2013, currently has 50 stations and about 400 bikes.

Rentals of the bikes have grown each year, by about 17 percent in 2015 and a projected 9 percent this year, according to figures from B-cycle Executive Director Elliott McFadden. And, based on operating expenses and revenue alone, B-cycle is in the black.

“We are on track to cover 100 percent of our operating budget with ridership revenue” this year, McFadden said. “That’s the best fare box recovery rate in the industry now in the U.S. Most other systems are only covering 40 to 60 percent and are depending on sponsorships for the rest.”

Based on figures from B-cycle, just under 98 percent of its operating costs are covered by payments from riders.

Through October, according to B-cycle, the bikes brought in $817,972 in “memberships,” which include yearly, monthly and daily rental charges. Meanwhile, B-cycle in those 10 months spent $836,567 on operations (including payroll) and marketing. But throw in the almost $83,000 that has come in from sponsorships — essentially, advertising on the bikes and docking stations — and the revenue is outpacing costs by roughly $65,000.

That “gravy,” McFadden said, will be used to add more bikes at various existing stations.

The bikes were taken out this year for 176,080 trips through October, or about 1.7 per day for each bike. At that rate, McFadden said, B-cycle bikes will be used for about 200,000 trips in 2016, versus 182,905 in 2015 and 156,341 in 2014, the nonprofit’s first full year of operation.

Two hundred thousand annual trips amounts to about 580 per day. But usage spikes during large community events in Central Austin, such as the South by Southwest festivals in March (which had about 17,300 bike checkouts in just 10 days this year) and the Austin City Limits music festival in October. Most days see much fewer than 580 bike rentals.

B-cycle, based on a survey of users, estimates that about a quarter of its bike checkouts replace a car trip. That would amount to about 140 avoided car trips per day this year in Central Austin. But that figure would be much larger during SXSW, for instance, a period when traffic in the city’s core is particularly bad.

The contract on the city’s agenda would be covered by $644,027 from a federal Transportation Alternatives Program grant and $161,006 from B-cycle sponsors and donors. The city is involved, McFadden said, because federal transportation grants can go only to governmental entities. So the city, he said, is B-cycle’s “fiscal sponsor,” and, under its contract with the nonprofit, owns the bikes and other equipment used for the program.

B-cycle paid for its current bikes and stations using a $1.5 million federal grant and $500,000 in sponsorships and donations. Some of that original money was tax revenue because Capital Metro, McFadden said, was a founding sponsor of B-cycle. The transit agency, he said, also paid for a bike docking station to be installed at its East Austin headquarters.

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