As Santa Monica’s successful City-owned Breeze bike share program turns two years old, the rub is in the hub.

If you haven’t been following the global trends in bike share programs, it may come as a surprise that docks – also known as bike racks – and locks are becoming obsolete. Multiple start-ups are charging forward with so-called “dockless” bicycles, allowing customers to bike directly to their home or business, park the bike outside and continue with their day. The bike itself locks the wheels until the next customer comes along and activates the bike. Bikes can be left haphazardly across the city, instead of parked in designated hubs as they are in Santa Monica.

Compared to Breeze, the dockless bikes are generally lighter and less clunky because they do not require the heavy u-shaped lock used to hook it to a hub or a rack. Dockless bike systems are now operating in dozens of cities from Seattle to Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica’s mobility manager is keeping a close eye on the trend.

“We are going to observe how it goes and then make a decision on what to do about that type of bicycle,” Francie Stefan said. Stefan pointed out Breeze is technically dockless – the system’s 80,000 users have the option to either lock their bike to a hub for free or to another object in the system for a two-dollar charge. Enterprising users round up displaced bikes and return them to hubs for a $1 credit per bike.

The current system keeps the bikes relatively organized and, for the most part, off city sidewalks. It’s not something to take for granted. A widely-shared New York Times article on the dockless bike share boom in Beijing describing a discarded bike dystopia where “mountains of candy-colored bicycles” clog city sidewalks and streets. San Francisco-based Spin, which is now in a dozen cities, tells customers to park bikes “wherever responsible.”

“Our sidewalk space is really limited and people love walking here,” Stefan said. “It’s the fundamental piece of mobility in Santa Monica because every trip includes some sort of walking … so I think it’s essential that we protect our sidewalks strongly as public space that needs to be clear and free for people to pass.”

One dockless start-up has infiltrated the streets in Santa Monica without a permit – but Bird brought electric scooters, not bikes. (Stefan said any questions about Bird should go to the City Attorney’s Office.) So far, Metro bikes offer the only legal competition to Breeze.

As Breeze surpasses 1.3 million miles traveled, Stefan is hoping to link the City-owned system with nearby cities using the same app, Social Bicycles. Next week the City Council vote on a partnership to allow Breeze users to dock their bikes at UCLA, West Hollywood or Beverly Hills for no extra charge. A shared system will allow users access to 830 bikes and 139 hubs throughout the Westside. At the current rate, Breeze would represent about 75 percent of total trips across all jurisdictions.

“The regional network will expand access to the system,” said Kyle Kozar, the City’s Bike Share Coordinator. “With one account, users will be able to travel farther throughout the Westside and not have to worry about out-of-system-area fees or extra sign-up processes.”

That, of course, still leaves Los Angeles in the middle. If any of those bikes are left in the Social Bicycles no-man’s-land that is Los Angeles, the user is charged a hefty $20 fee. Breeze has already expanded into Venice and Stefan says it would be up to the Council whether to try to expand east.

“I think it would make a lot of sense for there to be a contiguous area that goes to our partner cities,” Stefan said.

Any further growth would require the City to buy more bikes, according to Stefan, who attributes the ease of finding a ride to Breeze’s success.

“I think one of the success factors for Breeze is that it really is in everyone’s neighborhood,” Stefan said.

Breeze ended the 2017 fiscal year with a net positive budget of $206,000, according to a recent report. The program generates about 75 percent of its user revenue from rides and the rest from membership fees.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press