Bike Share for Provincetown?

Back in May 2015, a bike share company reached out to the Bicycle Committee to see if there was interest in starting a bike share system. The company was Zagster, a Cambridge, MA startup that was expanding to lots of small communities.

Their scheme would have required dedicated space on town property for docks and a hefty public subsidy or sponsor per dock (around $9k per year per dock). Two of the four local bike rental companies spoke up against it and the proposal never went anywhere.

Fast forward to late 2017. Dockless bike share companies are aggressively pursuing new markets. These are privately operated bike shares which don't ask for any public money. They just come to town and put their bikes on the street for anyone to rent with their smartphone.

Dockless bike shares have been popping up all over the country, including communities you wouldn't expect here in Massachusetts. Revere, Chelsea, Worcester, and Malden have all launched dockless bike shares. Boston's Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) convened a group of 16 communities that are investigating a joint request for proposals to operate a coordinated dockless bike share.

VBikes bailed on its plans to bring dockless bike share to Provincetown and Massachusetts.

VBikes bailed on its plans to bring dockless bike share to Provincetown and Massachusetts.

Local experience

In fall 2017, the Provincetown Bicycle Committee was approached by VBikes Technology, a Dallas-based bike share operator, to see if town would be interested in having them operate here. They came to town with one of their bikes, let us take test rides, and talked about how the system would work. The committee voiced their concerns and vBikes listened pretty well.

The Bicycle Committee discussed the possibility of bike share with the Provincetown Select Board, but they took no action on creating any kind of local regulation for operators. They did say they’d rather see the local bike shops operate a scheme themselves rather than bringing in an outside vendor. And there was some coverage by the local press, with the rather melodramatic headline “Town boards and local businesses gird for bike sharing".

After MAPC awarded its contract jointly to Lime and Spin, things started to change. By spring 2018, the venture-backed bike share companies start to pull out of Massachusetts. vBikes abandoned its plans for Cape Cod. By the end of the summer, ofo had closed their bike shares in Worcester and elsewhere in the state. VBikes told us they were cancelling their plans for Cape Cod and suspending operations in Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, Boston's Hubway rebranded itself as Blue Bikes with Blue Cross as its new sponsor, and was planning expansion with more docks in Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge. Valley Bike Share launched in Springfield and surrounding towns (they’re using Bewegen e-bikes). And Lime started rolling out bikes across the 15 MAPC towns.

What’s next?

So Provincetown was left without a bike share operation. We survived fine without it, though the idea has stuck in my head. I’ve evaluated a bunch of technology, but the scale required by the vendors was just looked too big for our little town. I explored some business models, but I haven’t quite figured out how to do a small bike share (100 bikes or fewer) that would be able to break even, be affordable to locals, and be feasible in collaboration with the local bike shops.

There are some clever bike-borrowing schemes set up by local libraries, like the one in Fitchburg, MA, which seems like a neat idea, but the lack of storage space in town makes that seem like a challenge. And even though the library is open seven days a week, it seems like a lot of overhead to manage and operate a bike share system.

If you have any ideas on how to create a small-scale bike share, I’d love to hear from you.