Just nine months ago, Mountain View had hundreds of brightly colored smart bikes scattered throughout town for anyone to rent with the click of an app. But as of next month, exactly zero are expected to be left in the city -- or anywhere in the Bay Area.
In a feat of backpedaling, bike-share companies are swiftly pulling their fleets of rental bikes from Mountain View and a host of other Bay Area cities, saying there isn't enough ridership to make the business sustainable.
In a phone call last week, representatives from San Francisco-based Lime informed Mountain View officials they would be taking the last of their bicycles out of the city. Within the next month, Lime, previously called Limebike, is reportedly planning a similar withdrawal of bikes in all its other Bay Area cities, including Sunnyvale, Foster City, San Mateo, Burlingame and South San Francisco.
"The bikes were part of our original business plan, but they're becoming less and less of our mobility fleet," said Joe Arellano, Lime spokesman. "At this time, we felt it was the right moment to phase out the electric-pedal bikes for newer technology."
That newer technology is electric scooters, which Lime officials say can get up to eight times more riders per day than a bike. The company plans to heavily promote its newer electric scooters in the coming days, especially in cities like Mountain View that don't formally allow them.
Meanwhile, city officials say they have no immediate plans to sanction electric scooters. In fact, city officials are pinning their hopes to attracting a new bikeshare company to set up shop in town. Mountain View transportation planner Nate Baird said the city is currently in talks with a new company to provide up to 400 rental bikes in the city. He declined to identify the company, saying the deal was still tentative.
"From our end, this has been a successful program, and we really hope we can keep it going," Baird said. "We're hoping we won't have a huge gap in service in terms of bike-share providers, but we still have to work through that.
Mountain View and other Peninsula cities have had an uphill battle when it comes to nurturing a bike-share program. If properly implemented, supporters say the rental bikes could provide the crucial last-mile link to bring commuters from local transit to their jobs.
Back in 2013, the city installed seven docking stations for rental bikes using a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. After that funding ran out in 2016, city officials decided the service wasn't worth keeping because its low ridership meant taxpayers were essentially paying a $20 subsidy for each bike trip.
Last year, Lime and a wave of similar companies approached Mountain View, saying they had improved on the bike-share concept to make it more practical. These companies used smartphone applications and GPS navigation to allow bikes to be left anywhere in town, instead of being restricted to a handful of docking stations.
Last May, Mountain View officials signed a deal with Lime and Chinese firm Ofo to launch a pilot program for a maximum of 800 rental bikes in the city. City officials say the companies never reached that cap, but they did deploy hundreds of bikes throughout Mountain View, especially in high-traffic areas such as around Castro Street and the North Bayshore area.
It didn't take long for troubling signs to emerge on the business side. In September, Ofo, which was once valued at upward of $2 billion, quickly pulled out its bike fleet from Mountain View. As of December, the company's rapid expansion had reportedly left it on the verge of bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, Lime has been gradually decreasing the size of its bicycle fleet in Mountain View. Early on, the company reportedly had 350 bikes, but as of this month there are fewer than 50 left, Baird said.
Lime's pivot to electric scooters isn't so easy for Mountain View and other Bay Area cities. Bikes have a long history of use and existing regulations for operating on city streets, but electric scooters lack that policy framework. Under the city's current guidelines, scooters are prohibited in Mountain View and any company operating them will receive a cease-and-desist letter, Baird said. Several cities in San Mateo County recently have come out against having electric scooters in town. Like Mountain View, those cities expressed a preference for finding a new bike-share company.
In the coming weeks, Baird said Mountain View will be conducting a study of its bike-share pilot program to consider options for going forward.