New Orleans selects a bike share program; contract talks begin

Posted on: July 21 2016

By Richard Rainey, | The Times-Picayune

A Brooklyn, N.Y. company has won the contest to bring a bike share program to the streets of New Orleans.

A City Hall selection committee chose Social Bicycles, or SoBi, from seven competitors, giving it high marks for its use of technology and capacity to find sponsors to fill shortcomings in its operating budget. Committee members said SoBi's proposal came closest to achieving Mayor Mitch Landrieu's main objectives: that a bike share program be accessible to low-income residents and that the city not pay a dime for its operations.

The committee tapped Jeff Hebert, Landrieu's incoming chief administrator, with negotiating a multi-year cooperative endeavor agreement. SoBi has estimated it could have a system of 700 bikes and 70 hubs up and running by summer 2017.

The company beat out three other finalists — CycleHop, BCycle and Shift Transit.

"We had four really good proposals," said Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin.

"Yeah, it was really hard to choose," said Alexandra Norton, Landrieu's director of innovation.

A selection committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday (June 29) in City Hall to begin parsing them.

Besides Hebert, Kopplin and Norton, Cedric Grant, who oversees the city's infrastructure policies, and Alex Lebow, Landrieu's director of strategic partnerships, rounded out the committee.

SoBi operates bike share programs in Long Beach, Calif. and Hamilton, Ontario, and provides equipment and technology to more than a dozen others around the world.

In New Orleans, the company told the committee it plans to partner with Dianna Ward, who runs Charlotte's bike share program, to fulfill the city's disadvantaged business enterprise requirement.

During presentations earlier this week, SoBi told the committee it could start up the program for $2.8 million and run it for about $1 million a year — a operating cost to be covered through user fees and sponsorships to the tune of $2.1 million a year. 

SoBi also proposed expanding by 2022 to a 900-bike, 90-station program.

Hebert and Kopplin said negotiations would cover every aspect of any agreement, from price structure to where the company plans to put its hubs. The latter is especially critical considering the myriad sizes, shapes and states of disrepair of New Orleans' sidewalks and curbs.

"We don't want a clutter of bikes everywhere and we don't want to block off tons of narrow sidewalks," Kopplin said. 

In its initial proposal, SoBi offered various ways for customers to pay, including $15-a-month memberships, discounted student rates and $20-a-year memberships for low-income users. Conventions and big events could buy bulk, short-term memberships as well at $1,000 for 100 weekly passes.

SoBi would operate what's known in the industry as a "smart bike" system. Rather than using traditional docking stations of earlier bike share programs that can take up a lot of space, a smart bike has GPS and connects wirelessly to stations to determine when a ride is over. It also would have a built-in locking mechanism that would allow users to park the bikes near a hub rather than dock it on a rack. 

Because it would be a multiyear contract, the City Council is required to grant final approval.