Santa Monica’s bikeshare program, Breeze, will cease operations at the end of the year.
In an email sent to customers, the city announced November 11 would be the last day and that after five years of operation, the bikes would be sold, donated or recycled.
The system cost about a million dollars per year to operate and was funded through a partnership with Hulu that covered 60-70 percent of the total cost. The remaining cash came from customers who paid to rent the bright green bikes on a per minute basis. The combination of revenue and donations had the system operating in the black for the first four years of its life but Breeze was undermined by a trifecta of challenges, one economic, one systemic and one natural.
Ridership, and the corresponding income, began to decline with the growth of private micro-mobility options such as shared scooters and bikes. In 2019, Santa Monica was home to scooter rentals from Bird, Lime, Lyft and Jump. Jump also launched a fleet of electric bikes. Breeze was a manual system with no electric option and while the bikes came with locks that could be secured anywhere, system pricing punished riders who chose to leave the bikes outside a designated parking space. The private systems structured their pricing to allow for vehicles to be picked up and dropped off anywhere.
The presence of those private companies in the marketplace also made it difficult for the city to secure additional investment in the public system.
The individual bikes each have a natural life cycle of several years before repairs can no longer keep them safely operating. Many of the Breeze bikes are approaching that time and the initial infrastructure was purchased with a $2 million in grants. Staff said they have worked to identify a new source of money to pay for additional equipment but in the current economy, grants are drying up. Metro will not issue grants for non-Metro bikeshares and in addition, the presence of private companies like Uber and Lyft in the bike/scooter business has made it harder to find money for public systems as state resources will not prioritize services that can be provided by the private sector.
“The reality is we got $2 Million in grant funds to set up the system and buy the bikes,” said Francie Stefan. “But the bikes were getting old and we needed another reinvestment into equipment infrastructure. That was going to be a substantial cost and typical grant agencies aren’t prioritizing it right now.”
A wholesale fleet replacement was also on the horizon due to a forced obsolescence of the bikes operating software caused by a series of corporate sales.
Santa Monica’s system runs on technology created by Social Bicycles and the company rebranded to Jump. Uber purchased Jump in 2018 and the company sold Jump to Lime. The deal resulted in the destruction of thousands of Jump bikes and hundreds of Jump employees were fired. Tech support for the Breeze system is now limited with little hope of continued support and any continued public system would require purchase of an entirely new fleet that would not be dependent on the dying technology.
Even with a new system, questions remain about the popularity of shared vehicles post-coronavirus. The pandemic further depressed ridership but Breeze actually began to rebound quickly. Officials made the system free to use to benefit individuals who did need transportation and when private systems abandoned the city during the early months of the crisis, Breeze remained on the streets.
Officials said a new bikeshare could be restarted at any time if the City can secure funding for the new equipment. In the meantime, the private operators have begun repopulating the city with their devices.
“While Breeze operations will come to an end, the City remains committed to ensuring that shared e-scooters, e-bikes, and bikes continue to help us reduce congestion and emissions by providing a reliable and affordable transportation option for short trips around town. Both Bird and Lyft will continue to operate e-scooters, and by October 1, 2020 Lyft will launch a fleet of e-bikes in Santa Monica as part of the Shared Mobility Pilot Program,” said the letter to customers.
“The City is considering the best way for ensuring that the community is well served with accessible shared e-scooter, e-bike, and pedal bike services. Staff plans to return to Council in Spring 2021 with a recommended path forward for achieving that goal before the Bird and Lyft permits expire on April 30, 2021.”