Houston Bcycle & Hawaii Island Bike Share: Bike Share for All During COVID-19

by Farrah Daniel, Better Bike Share Partnership Writer

Photo courtesy of Houston Bcycle

In May, The PeopleForBikes Foundation (PFB), as part of the Better Bike Share Partnership, made Emergency Response Grants available to nonprofit or city-owned shared mobility operators to support operating or program costs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the height of this virus, many bike share systems were forced to shut down, leaving residents without a safe way to commute. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case for every system, including the ones PFB and BBSP were able to support! These are the stories of how they served their community throughout an unprecedented pandemic.

In our last post, we shared stories about support for healthcare and essential workers. Let’s turn the page and check out how Houston and Kailua-Kona provided bike share access to everyone.

Hawaii and Houston: Providing Access &Safety With Bike Share

Of our 13 grantee recipients, four of them created initiatives to support everyone in their community. We covered Colorado Springs and Detroit in our last blog, so let’s see how Houston and Kailua-Kona have provided bike share to anyone who needs it:

Hawaii Island Bike Share

Photo courtesy of Hawaii Island Bike Share

Established in 2015 by Peoples Advocacy for Trails Hawaii (PATH), Hawaii Island Bike Share (HIBS) is a non-profit and low-cost flexible transportation service that provides on-demand access to a network of shared bicycles in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

When COVID-19 hit, the bike share program lost 95% of its business due to imposed — and necessary — travel restrictions. The lockdown forced many visitors to leave Hawaii, and the HIBS team was certain temporarily closing up shop was the only solution. ”

To support county residents during this time, especially those who rely on bike share for transportation, HIBS offered three free months of bike share through what they call the Stay Healthy Hawaii plan. “We called our partners at the County of Hawaii to let them know our plans and were surprised by their response,” shares Tina Clothier, the Strategic Projects Director for HIBS. “Not only did they ask us to keep our operations going, but they also asked if we would give our Hawaii residents three months of free bike share membership.” The county also offered to help keep the bikes and stations disinfected, which eased concerns for the safety of our staff balancing the bikes and doing maintenance.

HIBS and their county were on the same page: Riding bikes could positively impact the health of their residents as well as support riders’ mental health, so the free three months of bike share began.

After launching on April 10th, more than 400 people signed up. “We receive daily phone calls thanking us for the program and we get to hear great stories about the joy people are experiencing getting back on bikes after so many years,” shares Clothier. “We took a leap of faith that we would be able to find funding to cover the costs of keeping the program going and it has been worth it!”

Clothier says:

For the entire 34 years of PATH’s existence, we have advocated for the development of infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians. Being able to provide this transportation and exercise tool for our island ohana (or family) in a time of crisis gives us a deep sense of satisfaction that we, too, are making a difference in keeping our residents healthy. We hope that we can grow the program and keep everyone engaged in the program when the crisis passes.”

Houston Bcycle

Photo courtesy of Houston Bcycle

Under the Harris County “Stay Home, Work Safe” order, which was in effect until the end of April, Houston BCycle was classified as an essential business and remained open throughout the pandemic as a much-needed, socially-distant, affordable form of transportation and recreation.

In March 2020, the program saw more trips (26,000+) than they’re ever had in one month.

Here’s how they handled an unprecedented pandemic:

  • On April 3, Houston BCycle closed 12 of its most popular stations in busy parks in order to combat overcrowding — despite th fact that those stations generate more than 70% of their revenue. Safety first!
  • All forms of communication — social media, newsletter, text message, customer service, website, and more — have focused almost entirely on messaging regarding proper and hygienic use of the system.
  • Mechanics and field technicians — along with a large team of part-time, paid ambassadors — have worked hard to scale up Bcycle’s disinfection efforts accordingly. They also posted COVID-19 warning signs at each station that include health information and a mandate to stay six feet apart while using the system.
  • They instituted a policy to refund new members upon request.
  • They relaxed rules around delinquencies to increase flexibility for riders — many of whom were expected to be undergoing tough financial times.
  • They also consistently informed the public of these efforts while continuing to push them to be responsible stewards by washing their hands, using the BCycle mobile app (as opposed to the public touchscreen) and wearing gloves when possible.

To ensure that all who need Houston Bcycle services can make use of them safely, the team committed to providing an essential service and focused heavily on disinfection and communications processes.

At a time when streets are more open than ever, we’re proud to see people utilizing bike share for all types of trips and activities. We’ve been working hard to keep the system safe, and we have been encouraged by the positive feedback from riders over the past few weeks,” says Henry Morris, who is in charge of Houston Bcycle’s development and communications.

Ridership Increases or Decreases

Hawaii Island Bike Share

Tina Clothier, Strategic Projects Director: We have [seen an increase in ridership]! Not only has our membership program grown by 56% since March 1, but our ridership has also increased by 67% from March to May 7 this year over last year.

Houston Bcycle

Henry Morris, Development and Communications: We were seeing the highest ridership in our program’s history at the beginning of Houston’s local lockdown order. March 2020, with 26,000+ rides, was the busiest month of ridership since our launch in May 2012. Since closing 12 of our busiest stations to combat overcrowding in parks and mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19, our ridership dropped and then picked back up. We are seeing more new riders seeking out bike share than ever before.

COVID Observations

Hawaii Island Bike Share

Tina Clothier, Strategic Projects Director: My sense from talking with members is that they have been wanting to try bike share, but didn’t have the time or maybe even the funds to try it out. The other thing that I am hearing is that with less motor vehicle traffic on the road, riders are feeling more comfortable with trying bike share. Once they do, they really enjoy it!

They are using it for family outings and safe outings with friends as well as for quick trips to the store for essential items. We are grateful to People for Bikes and to the County of Hawaii for the support that allows us to keep this program going.

Houston Bcycle

Henry Morris, Development and Communications:

1. The public’s response to our program has been overwhelmingly positive and we are seeing more new riders using Houston BCycle than ever before. We are proud of the extra measures we’ve implemented to keep staff and riders as safe as possible through our disinfecting protocols, constant communications, and our decision to close our 12 most popular stations.

2. The major shift in ridership that we’ve seen is the loss of student rides (since schools are closed) and the addition of new recreational riders who are looking for an outdoor outlet for their cabin-fever energy.

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Stay tuned for the next post about the awesome work our grantees are doing! In the meantime, tell us what you learned from how these cities approached COVID-19! Reach out on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

The Better Bike Share Partnership is a JPB Foundation-funded collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to build equitable and replicable bike share systems. Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram or sign up for our weekly newsletter. Story tip? Write farrah@peopleforbikes.org