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SA Bike Share tries to navigate funding issues, coexistence with scooters

Challenges include $400k hole in budget, lower ridership

SAN ANTONIO – It's "SWell Cycle" no longer. When the dollars go, so does the branding.

San Antonio Bike Share, the nonprofit group that operates a system of dozens of shared bike stations throughout the city, is trying to figure out a way forward in the wake of its title sponsor, Southwest General Hospital, pulling out of the final year of a three-year sponsorship deal.

The departure leaves a $400,000 hole in SBSA’s roughly $750,000 budget this year, though executive director JD Simpson said it is not in any imminent danger.

“We’re just trying to figure out how to get us through this hump,” Simpson said.

The issue is establishing a long-term plan for funding. Ridership numbers had decreased even before the dip, Simpson said they saw from the arrival of scooters on San Antonio streets in summer 2018.

The numbers have been bouncing back, including a better-than-expected December, Simpson said, but they aren’t back to the same level.

San Antonio Bike Share Annual Trips
San Antonio Bike Share Annual Trips (KSAT)

Moving forward, SABS wants to grow both its ridership and sponsorship. While SABS doesn’t currently receive any money from the City of San Antonio for its operations, Simpson said they are looking into that possibility, too. In other cities with very successful bike-share programs, she said, there is some kind of local government support.

In the meantime, she believes SABS will “weather this storm.”

"We just need to, you know, find some solid, consistent solutions, not these one-offs,” Simpson said. "Because if we run into another one-off, then we're sitting in the same situation again."

First introduced in 2011 as San Antonio BCycle, San Antonio Bike Share re-branded its operation in 2018 as SWell Cycle in reference to its new sponsorship with Southwest General.

Southwest General is owned by Steward Health Care, a Dallas-based health care system, which Simpson said gave SABS a notice in Spring 2019 that it would be pulling the sponsorship for 2020.

Going forward, Simpson said the bikes will carry the San Antonio Bike Share name.

Beyond the funds her group will lack this year, Simpson said she was still waiting for two payments of $100,000 each for the 2019 sponsorship. One payment was supposedly on its way, she said, while the other is committed for sometime in January.

Simpson said she was not privy to why Steward decided to pull its sponsorship, nor did a statement released by a Steward Health Care spokesman on Monday include any specifics.

“We are committed to San Antonio and always looking for opportunities to enhance our investment and engagement in the community and meet the priorities of our patients and the neighborhood we serve,” the statement reads.

“We provided notice to SABS of our intention to opt-out of the final year on March 20, 2019 – more than 8 months before we were contractually obligated to do so. We wish SABS nothing but the best going forward.”

National media have reported that amid an expansion, Steward had hundreds of millions of dollars in operating losses in 2017 and 2018.

Beyond funding worries, though, SABS will need to contend with the use of scooters in San Antonio.

Though the scooters are similarly available for rent and arguably had an effect on the use of the bike-share program, Simpson isn’t taking an adversarial stance.

“We feel that the scooters are not necessarily direct competition. We should be able to operate peacefully, if you will, and jointly,” Simpson said. “One solution does not solve everyone’s problems every day.”

Beyond funding worries, though, SABS will need to contend with the use of scooters in San Antonio.

Though the scooters are similarly available for rent and arguably had an effect on use of the bike share program, Simpson isn’t taking an adversarial stance.

“We feel that the scooters are not necessarily direct competition. We should be able to operate peacefully, if you will, and jointly,” Simpson said. “One solution does not solve everyone’s problems every day.”

Three exclusive city contracts are set to kick off the newest phase for scooters in San Antonio on Jan. 12. After that date, only Razor, Lime, and Bird will be permitted to rent out dockless vehicles. Each company will have up to 1,000 permits.

Simpson believes the contracts will provide more stability and opportunities for collaboration with the scooter companies.

“I think we can collaborate together and work and figure out how to solve - and get more people out of cars, and looking at the bigger transportation issue that we have here,” Simpson said.

Three exclusive city contracts are set to kick off the newest phase for scooters in San Antonio on Jan. 12. After that date, only Razor, Lime, and Bird will be permitted to rent out dockless vehicles. Each company will have up to 1,000 permits.

Simpson believes the contracts will provide more stability and opportunities for collaboration with the scooter companies.

“I think we can collaborate together and work and figure out how to solve -- and get more people out of cars, and looking at the bigger transportation issue that we have here,” Simpson said.


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