Pedal pushers: Valley-wide bike share to spread to smallest towns

HARLINGEN — Urban bike-sharing is about to become a thing even in the Valley’s smallest towns.

Harlingen, Brownsville and Edinburg, in conjunction with UTRGV, have been operating a bike-share program called Zagster since late summer 2016.

McAllen has a different program, BCycle, which does pretty much the same thing.

But now the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council is stepping in to lead the way to an integrated, Valley-wide bike-share program that won’t cost a penny.

“The biggest benefit is that if we select one vendor as a region then there’s zero investment for any city that wants to get involved,” said Ron Garza, executive director of the Lower Rio Grande Development Council, which is leading the two-wheeled charge.

“I mean from the smallest city — I mean Rangerville — they can have a fleet if they choose to have three to five bikes. The really cool thing is that any city can participate.”

Plans already in place

The City of Harlingen is currently paying about $17,000 a year for its contract with Zagster to provide bikes for rent at several city locations, although much of that was covered by a UT School of Public Health grant. The use of those bikes — 823 trips have been made with Zagster rental bikes in 2018 in the city — provides a minimal fee back to the city.

Under the LRGVDC proposal, a one-year pilot program will be set up Valley-wide to provide bike-sharing in what is called a “dockless” system.

With Zagster, bikes must be picked up and put back at designated bike racks, but there are none of these racks with the dockless system. The idea with dockless bikes is to try to limit them to zones within a city.

“What the challenges are with dockless is that it is dockless, it has no fixed location to leave the bike,” Garza said. “So what that’s going to entail is just a lot of compliance measures that we place on the vendor to make sure we keep them within certain designated zones. But what we want to do is allow enough flexibility that we allow riders to go places they’re not accustomed to going … we want to open up some freedom.”

Somebody pays, right?

So where does the money come from?

Dockless bike-share users register online or add an app to their mobile phones that includes a credit or debit card number. They use it to unlock the bike and start the stopwatch on their ride.

A usual fee is $1 for the first half-hour or hour of a bike ride, although many companies offer packages with multiple options such as a $100-per-year plan with all first hours free or something like that.

“We would want something that any city can afford so most of the dockless systems are a free service for the city,” said J. Joel Garza Jr., director of the Harlingen-San Benito Metropolitan Planning Organization. “They operate kind of like Uber and Lyft — you allow them to operate within your city and they will deploy the bikes and anyone can use them.

“The city won’t have to contribute anything but they don’t get any of the revenues, either,” Joel Garza added.

Which is how a dockless bike-share company makes its money — it sets up the system, provides the bikes, and keeps the credit-card cash.

Joel Garza said the city’s contract has an option for renewal with Zagster that ends in August. If the development council’s plans are realized, the new bike-share company will have its two-wheelers ready to replace Zagster at that time, since Zagster doesn’t offer a dockless option.

Some laws required

For a city to allow the bike-share program to operate, city commissions and councils are going to have to pass an ordinance allowing whatever bike-share company is selected to set up its program and operate in the city or town.

Joel Garza says the development council is ready to help and is coming up with some standard language which can be used by town councils or commissions to make the bike-share plan street legal in those communities.

“We’re trying to devise some type of contract or ordinance that all cities will follow,” he said. “To say, ‘if you want to operate here, these are the requirements: you must have a management team, if any issues arise you have, for example, 24 hours to respond and put something in place,’ and that’s what I guess the RFP (request for proposals) will look at.”

The sturdy bikes used in bike-share programs still can get knocked around, and a flat tire or a seat out of line is not uncommon. Under the contract the development council expects to sign, all of this routine maintenance will be performed by the company that wins the bike-share contract.

“Whatever vendor we choose, they will actually hire staff or subcontract staff in the Valley to serve the company so this actually has a job-creation benefit as well,” Ron Garza said. “They’ll probably hire three or five or six people across the Valley.”

More than a workout

With more and more hike-and-bike trails being constructed around the Valley to encourage residents to become more active, expanding bike-sharing seems a natural fit in the quest for a healthy lifestyle.

Yet the development council’s Garza says he’s excited because a seamless Valley-wide bike-share program won’t just provide a workout, it will provide a transportation component now lacking for many Valley residents.

“Right now bike-sharing is a recreational tool, people are really just doing it to enjoy the hike-and-bike trails, that kind of thing,” Ron Garza said. “I think this mode of moving to dockless, if we do it correctly, will truly move us into more of a multi-modal form of transportation.

“Individuals without vehicles — and we administer Valley Metro, too — we see this as a complement to that transportation,” he added. “So you can literally jump off the bus, grab one of these bike shares, and go to H-E-B.

“The possibilities are really endless and those who are disadvantaged and don’t have the means for reliable transportation, this can potentially fill that gap in some form or fashion,” Ron Garza added.

Ron Garza said he anticipates 10 or even a dozen cities and towns joining the initial bike-share program once a vendor is selected. He said a one-year pilot program should provide enough time to evaluate whether dockless bike-share works in the Valley, and if not, go on to something else.

“One of the most exciting things, though, is the zero-cost option,” he said. “A city of any size, like a Combes, a Primera, a Rio Hondo, anybody could adopt this ordinance and then what they’ll do is work with each individual city and our committee to determine by population ratio how many bikes that community should have.”


Dockless bikes

Also known as a free-floating bike or fourth generation, the dockless bike hire systems consist of a bicycle with a lock that is usually integrated onto the frame and does not require a docking station. So there is no bike rack designated as a pickup and return site.

Users download an app on their phones and register credit card information which is billed to the card upon unlocking the bike and riding.

Due to the fact that this system does not require docking stations and thus does not need additional infrastructure, the dockless bike systems have found favor with city planners and have grown rapidly around the globe.

What’s it cost?

User fees may range from the equivalent of 50 cents to $30 per day, but most are about a dollar for 30 or 60 minutes.

Zagster system now

The bike-share operations in Harlingen, Brownsville and Edinburg are operated by Zagster. This system has designated bike racks where the bikes can be picked up but must be returned to that rack or another Zagster rack.

By the numbers

Zagster usage RGV 2018

Member signups — 720

Total trips — 2,424

Median trip duration — 43 minutes

Total ride time — 1,149 hours

Total distance traveled — 9,191 miles

Average trip distance — 5.32 miles

Zagster trips by city 2018

Brownsville — 989

Harlingen — 823

Edinburg — 630

Source: Zagster, Jan. 1 through May 21