To close or not to close? That is the question… for many bike share operators this winter.
With the Thanksgiving holiday over and fall transitioning into winter comes a changing of the guard for North America’s more inclement bike share systems. Many bike share systems around the country are closing up shop for the winter and some are deciding to stay open for the very first time. I spoke to staff members and managers at Boston’s Hubway, NiceRide MN in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and B-cycle programs in Denver and Kansas City and asked why they chose to close or stay open.
The cost-benefit analysis of staying open versus closing for the winter varies by city mainly due to the climate variations across cities, physical station locations, and the structure of their bike share contracts. While Denver, Kansas, and Boston’s bike share programs decided to give this winter a shot and stay open for the first time, other programs, like Nice Ride, aren’t afforded that option because of heavy snowfall, unabating low temperatures, and station locations. But perhaps the most obvious factor in determining whether or not a program should remain open for winter is the dip in revenue caused by lower usage combined with the increased costs related to snow removal.
In many bike share programs, casual memberships–24-hour, 3-day, or one week memberships–account for a significant portion of the operational budget. With the cold weather, people tend to forgo bicycles and shield themselves from the elements. And tourists, a key revenue generating demographic, tend to stay away from cold climates and head to warmer destinations. The only members left are diehard annual members, and many of the systems cited their loyalty to that member group as one of the main reasons for staying open. Unfortunately for the operators, this member group isn’t as lucrative as the casual membership market.
Continuing operations during the winter also opens one up to increased maintenance costs. Bike share companies are responsible for snow removal, so rebalancing crews need to pack a snow shovel in addition to all their bike/station repair gear. Extremely cold and wet weather also increases wear and tear on the bikes, and the risk of equipment damage in the face of a big storm is exacerbated.
Minnesota, notorious for its harsh winters, is home to Nice Ride MN in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Every winter, the program faces heavy snow and temperatures that rarely rise above freezing. As a result, Minneapolis and its neighbors engage in aggressive snow plowing and employ snow-melting measures with salt and sand, which can badly damage metallic docks and stations. Thus, the removal of stations from Minneapolis and St. Paul streets is a must. And for similar reasons, Nice Ride’s sister PBSC cities to the north in Canada–Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa–all hibernate for winter. Denver, Boston, and Kansas City, on the other hand, have the luxury of natural snow melt since temperatures rise above freezing throughout the winter.
In addition to the severity of winter weather, another factor in determining whether or not a program should stay open for winter has to do with where stations are sited. In most cases, if a station is sited on the street, it must be removed to make way for snow plows. Having off-street station locations is the single factor that enables Denver Bike Sharing, Kansas City B-cycle, and Boston’s Hubway to have the option of staying at least partially open for the winter. Of the Hubway stations in Cambridge, only two had to be relocated to accommodate for snow plows. The rest of Hubway’s municipalities primarily rely on street-space for their stations so winter station removal was necessary. In Denver and Kansas City, all of the stations sites are located off-street which don’t impede snow plowing efforts. Since the operator isn’t on the financial hook to remove stations in those cases, the costs associated with remaining open aren’t as expensive to the operator. Thus, Kansas City, Denver, and Hubway only weigh the option of the inflated maintenance costs of staying open with forgoing revenue opportunities in closing.
Station siting also has an impact on the degree to which equipment needs to be removed, which increases removal costs. Nice Ride has to completely remove its equipment from the street which requires a subcontractor with a mini-crane to pick up the stations and move them into storage. This costs the program 24% of its annual operating budget and costs $90,000 for each removal and reinstallation. Conversely, last year when Denver Bike Sharing closed, they only had to remove their bikes from their stations since there was nothing to get in the way of snow plowing.
Let this be a lesson to future bike share systems opening in colder climates: whenever possible, site stations off-street because otherwise they will likely need to be removed once winter sets in.
Another factor that affects the decision of winter operations has to do with the structure of the bike share contract. In Hubway’s case, the city owns the equipment and is on the hook for the costs of removing equipment from the street. In order to remain open for the winter in Cambridge, the program’s operator and the city had to amend their contracts to allow for operation in the winter. In that amended contract, they also had to outline operational strategies for non-corrosive snow removal and bike maintenance. However, with private and non-profit systems who own the equipment, more autonomy is afforded in making their decision. In all cases, the choice to open or close is often a collaboration between the city, their snow removal efforts, and the bike share operator, and the onus of the decision varies based on who owns the system.
While there are drawbacks to remaining open for winter, there are also numerous benefits which don’t necessarily have a dollar amount attached to them. Perhaps the biggest boon to staying open is the level of service operators can provide with a year round system. “It’s difficult for users to become habituated to a public transit system and then expect them to re-habituate again when we reopen in March,” said Nick Bohnenkamp of Denver Bike Sharing. Eric Vaughn of Kansas City B-cycle echoed Nick’s sentiment in our interview: “We expect that ridership will be down over the winter months, but it is important to provide bicycle transportation to those who depend on it.” Annual members don’t pay for nine months out of the year in other localities, they pay for twelve. By providing that year round service, commuters can rely on bike share for their daily lives in rain, snow, or sleet. It is a nod to annual members who use the system everyday and rely on it for their work commutes and personal trips. While there isn’t a specific dollar amount attached to this benefit, being there for your members will increase usage and confidence in an operator’s brand.
Another intangible benefit has to do with staffing and the effect closing for the winter has on morale. When bike share operators close for the winter, some rebalancers and mechanics need to find other employment in the winter months. Some prefer this line of work because of the extended winter break, like a teacher on summer vacation. However, unlike a teacher, it’s not a paid vacation and it can be difficult for programs closing for the winter to retain employees year-round. Nick Bohnenkamp of Denver Bike Sharing mentioned that this effect on staff morale was one of the chief reasons they decided to stay open. With the increase in employee retention and morale comes a significant non-monetary return on the investment for training and the staff experience that comes from day to day operations. And experience is difficult to find in an industry as young as bike share.
While the question of ‘To Close or Not to Close’ is answered on a case by case basis, there are clear benefits weathering the winter storm for all programs. As Nick Bohnenkamp of Denver Bike Sharing said, bike share can’t compete with buses, trains, or cars if it isn’t open all year round. And the intangible benefits from staff morale and being there for your annual members all year round can outweigh potential costs. Even Bill Dossett, Executive Director of the bitterly cold and snowy NiceRide, mentioned that closing for winter is never a sure thing–him and his team weigh the prospective costs and benefits. However, the benefits have yet to outweigh the costs. The Hubway stations in Cambridge which are remaining open for the winter is an experimental pilot that could be potentially expanded to the rest of Hubway.
To conclude, kudos to all the riders who brave the snow storms and help keep their bike share systems running during the winter months. Stay warm, wear gloves, and keep riding!