In the News: New Orleans City Council committee gives preliminary approval to new bike share partnership

Philip Kiefer, The Lens • January 14, 2021

Members of the New Orleans City Council’s Transportation and Public Works Committees voted on Tuesday to recommend a five-year cooperative endeavor agreement between the city and a new nonprofit called Blue Krewe that intends to operate a new bike-share program in the city, replacing the Blue Bikes bike-share program that was suspended last spring.

If the agreement is approved by the full council, Blue Krewe would begin the process of establishing the bike share program, and would begin operation by Sept. 1 at the latest.

The agreement lays out a series of wide-ranging objectives on the part of the city, including “supporting equity, safety, connectivity, and efficiency in transportation, while also improving public health and wellness,” according to the agreement.

The city has begun a large-scale project to expand bike infrastructure, particularly in areas like New Orleans East, Algiers, and Central City.

“Really, when we talk about access to bike infrastructure, and the mayor’s commitment to mobility equity and access, you have to have a bike share program,” said Laura Bryan, the director of the city’s Office of Transportation.

In a presentation at the meeting, Blue Krewe CEO Geoff Coats echoed that language, saying that the organization was “committed to bringing equitable, sustainable bike share back to the city of New Orleans.”

Coats was previously the general manager at Blue Bikes. He had been part of the small team that launched the program in 2017 when it was managed by the company Social Bicycles — later Jump Bikes — and stayed on as Jump was acquired by ride-hailing company Uber in 2018. He lost that position after Uber transferred ownership of its bike-share program to Lime — the scooter and bike-share company — in the spring.

Coats said that over its three years in New Orleans, the operator had racked up 680,000 individual rides for a total of a million miles.

“There’s really strong local demand and leadership for continuing bike share,” said Dan Favre, the director of local safe streets advocacy group Bike Easy. Favre will be on the leadership board of Blue Krewe. “The nonprofit governance model for bike share was used successfully in a number of cities,” including Memphis and Houston.

At the Tuesday meeting, Coats said that without a “giant pile of outside money,” Blue Krewe will “have to put together support and collaboration” from local sources.

“The loss of that money is our challenge and our opportunity to take back control,” he said.

Blue Krewe received seed money and other assistance from the Greater New Orleans Foundation. Blue Krewe’s board president is Dr. Corey Hebert. Its leadership includes Favre; Coats; former deputy mayor and current GNOF CEO Andy Kopplin; Destinie Hammond, the communications manager for the North American Bikeshare Association and a previous marketing manager at Blue Bikes; and Emilie Bahr, a writer and urban planner. All live in the New Orleans area.

“I’m very psyched about the shift in the way that we’re thinking about how it’s governed, in terms of this locally based nonprofit,” Favre said. “The impact of those decisions are all borne by people who work here, live here, and move around here. And that’s a very different institutional mindset than the big money, VC-backed endeavors that we were working with before.”

Losing Blue Bikes

New Orleans hasn’t had a bike share on the ground since March, when Blue Bikes were pulled from the city, initially as a response to the coronavirus crisis. Later following the transfer to Lime in the spring, it became more clear that it was unlikely they were coming back.

The bikes themselves were left in limbo in two warehouses along the Lafitte Greenway, and the program laid off most of its local employees, leaving only a skeleton staff.

In other cities, tens of thousands of Jump bikes were destroyed en masse, although some were donated to community programs in New York and Mexico City. Lime rebooted the Jump bikes in a few select markets, including Denver, but its business model revolves largely around scooters.

At the time, Laura Bryan, the director of New Orleans’ Office of Transportation, told WGNO that the city had “requested to both Uber and Lime that bikes are not removed until the next steps are finalized.”

Around that time, the city reached out to Greater New Orleans Foundation to work with Uber to secure the bikes as a donation.

Those talks fell through, said Favre in an interview, at the same time as Lime was asking the city to accept shared scooters.

“They more or less said ‘We’ll keep doing bike share, but you’ve got to let us have two or three scooters for every bike that we operate,’” he remembered.

“We thought Uber and Lime had figured it out together, but apparently Lime came in at the last minute and just pulled the rug out from under all of it.”

Lime communications could not be reached on Wednesday.

Bryan said that there were “a number of sticking points” in the donation process, including how the bikes would be modified for reuse, but didn’t want to comment further.

But, Favre said that Bike Easy, GNOF, and the city still shared an interest in creating a local bike share.

“We have so many of the assets in place here. The bikes are gone, and that’s kind of the expensive one, but there’s still the institutional knowledge, all the data that shows that bike share is a proven solution for New Orleans. A bunch of the pieces are there.”

What will it look like?

Right now, there are a number of details to be fleshed out, although Coats says that the system is likely to be similar to Blue Bikes in broad strokes.

The contract stipulates that by September 1, Blue Krewe will need to provide at least 350 bikes, locks, and enough dedicated racks to hold at least 575 total bikes. Coats said in a follow up email that Uber had donated the existing Blue Bikes racks to Blue Krewe, and that they would count towards the requirement. (The city provided right-of-way for those racks.)

“Our intention is to encourage the bike-share program to link directly” to the city’s existing bike equity index, Bryan said. Ideally, the city would like the coverage area to extend beyond that of Blue Bikes — which were concentrated in the city’s tourism-heavy core.

Favre said that the specifics of what bikes will be used, and where they will come from “has not been hammered out yet,” although he estimated later that the price tag would likely be in the low millions of dollars.

“That’s a big part of what the CEA enables,” he said. “Once things get settled between Blue Krewe and the city, that really gives Blue Krewe the authority to go out there and dig in with vendors to test them out, and eventually select one. We’ve already started doing that shopping, but it can only go so far before we’re the authorized operator.”

The contract leaves open the possibility that Blue Krewe will use e-bikes, and Favre said in a text that “the data is showing more and more that they’re the most effective for widespread uptake of bikeshare.”

However, said Coats, “We’re looking at placing an order sooner rather than later,” although once the order is in, manufacturing and shipping uncertainties caused by the pandemic make it harder to estimate arrival times.

Fares are also yet to be determined. Blue Krewe will be required to provide low-income, monthly, and pay-as-you-go plans. The low-income fares will require approval from the city, while modifications to other fare types will only be subject to recommendations.

The contract also gives Blue Krewe the authority to create “additional fare types,” specifically identifying “university fares, convention bulk rates, and variable fare structures that incentivize user distribution.”

Blue Krewe is obligated to reinvest all revenue back into the program, and Kopplin of GNOF said that means that if things go well, those revenues will be used to expand the network and lower fares.

“There’s no venture capital funder who has to get paid back,” he said.

Bryan said that it was too early to say exactly what the city would be looking for in reviewing fare changes, but that “we want to make sure that our residents feel represented, whatever that means.”

“We haven’t done this yet, so we’re working in a new operational situation. And I think what’s most important is that our residents continue to have access to the board.”

But, Coats said, equity isn’t just about the fare. “When we talk about equity, how do we talk about it on both sides of the equation?” A number of tech-backed bike share companies have outsourced much of their labor to gig workers, he noted.

“We’re also looking at it from the side of our operations. The people who work for us, can they rent apartments, afford healthcare?”

Bryan also said that the city would partner with Blue Krewe to apply for grants that would cover some costs.

“Federally, there’s some grant opportunities where the municipality has to apply,” she said. She said the city didn’t have specific grants in mind yet, but that it was working with the Regional Planning Commission to find opportunities.

Blue Bikes had faced criticism after increasing its fares from 10 to 25 cents a minute after introducing e-bikes to the city last February, though it maintained its $20 annual rates for low-income riders who were on public assistance. The system was also criticized on the grounds that its app-based rentals, including for monthly plans, created barriers for people without access to smartphones.

The contract appears to refer to those criticisms, saying that Blue Krewe “shall make its good faith best efforts to provide fiscally sustainable methodologies and Low-Income Plans to ensure accessibility of the Bicycle Sharing Program to residents and visitors alike.”

Coats said that Blue Krewe won’t be able to say exactly how it will address the issue until the bikes are purchased.

“Different hardware vendors have different ways of solving that problem,” he said.

“Some people handle it with phone calls–you don’t have a smartphone, but you can call in and say, I’m standing at this bike, and I want to access it.” But, he said, he won’t know exactly what the solution will look like “until we have a better idea what the capabilities are.”

Blue Krewe will also have the authority to seek out branding partnerships as a revenue stream, similar to Blue Bikes’ partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield. Coats said that those conversations were ongoing, including with partners who “maybe wanted to be involved, but because it was Jump and Uber, there wasn’t a place to be involved.”

“The business model didn’t necessarily want that,” he said. “As a small nonprofit, there are donations you would be more than happy to get, whereas for a larger company, the red tape would come along with it.”

Katie Fernelius contributed to this report.

From “New Orleans City Council committee gives preliminary approval to new bike share partnership”, The Lens, Philip Kiefer, January 13, 2021