Houstonians who enjoy navigating the city aside from using a car will soon be saying goodbye to a decade-old bike-sharing program. The non-profit Houston Bike Share announced to the Houston Chronicle on Friday that Houston BCycle is shutting down in about two months after experiencing financial hardship.
The program launched in Houston in 2012 with just three stations and about 15 bikes; as of today, there are more than 150 stations across Houston. The organization said it began to grapple with its finances during the COVID-19 pandemic. Its annual ridership reached 300,000 trips and was not able to keep up with the operational costs.
"It’s really disappointing for all of us, it’s heartbreaking really," said James Llamas, Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of Bike Share. "So many people have put so much into this network, most of all our staff – they’ve really stepped up, especially over the last year."
Bike Share raised concerns that they needed help last October and thought they would shut down by the end of the year, but Llamas said they managed to stay afloat, nine months later. The program operates by using user revenue and sponsorships to cover operating costs, and grants and fundraising covered the organization’s expansion.
"Over the last several years, we’ve seen a slightly smaller share of the operating costs covered by that user revenue," said Llamas. "And at the same time, the advertising sponsorships have dried up since COVID – so where we used to be able to make up that gap in operating costs with advertising sponsorships – we’ve found the last couple of years, those just simply haven’t been available."
Last year, the organization was at 250,000 rides, but there was still a demand. To keep up with operational costs, Bike Share suspended some of its stations and increased its prices. Initially, METRO Houston approved a partnership with BCycle to take over the program for a limited time while the organization figured out its next steps. Llamas said, unfortunately, the plan did fall through.
"They came back in April and said that they were not interested in collaborating, and then went out with a request for proposals for a smaller bike share system of their own," he said. "And so with that solution no longer available – we had some tough decisions to make."
Llamas said they were faced with a tough decision, but he wishes something could be done.
"We reached the end of our cash reserves and as drivers of the nonprofit, we need to responsibly wind it down, before we get to the point where we can no longer pay our bills and our staff."
The organization said some of its successful stations are around bike lanes, bayou trails, the five university and college campuses where stations are located, and the Texas Medical Center. In 2018, the organization developed a strategic plan, and within that plan was to bring equity in all Houston neighborhoods, especially serving residents who needed affordable transportation options.
Bike stations have been installed in Fifth Ward, East End, Third Ward, and more underserved communities in Houston. The organization has partnered with health clinics like Legacy Community Health, giving patients a one-year membership with BCycle.
"I’m still hopeful that a solution can be found to keep bike sharing going in Houston," said Llamas. "It’s been enormously successful, I think we’ve shown how BikeShare can work in a city like Houston."
The bike stations are still operating and per the city's request the equipment will not be removed, the organization said. Llamas said it would take the proper funding to continue the program.
“It would really be a shame to see all of that dismantled and so I’m hoping that a solution can be found for sustainable funding of this system."