Bikes equipped with GPS will soon debut as part of Bay Bikes, San Mateo’s new bike sharing pilot program. Image courtesy of the City of San Mateo.

This spring, the City of San Mateo will distribute 50 royal blue bicycles across 10 to 12 stations within the town’s borders, unveiling a bike share pilot program that lets residents rent bikes for short trips.

“We’re hoping to launch in time for Bike to Work Day” on May 12, said Kathy Kleinbaum, a senior management analyst with the city.

The launch — and what it takes to pedal the system toward success — is being watched by Bay Area transportation professionals. Bike sharing is emerging as a potential step toward improving transportation networks. As traffic levels rise, bikes are a great car substitute to zip around town and connect to that last mile home from public transit. Programs complement larger city goals by inspiring health and wellness, and chipping away at air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

San Mateo is establishing its “Bay Bikes” program with smart bikes from New York-based supplier Social Bicycle. They have a GPS-enabled lock so riders can park them at regular bike racks, even mid-reservation to run errands without halting a trip. San Mateo is adding 40 more racks to increase riders’ route flexibility. It also hired the firm Bikes Make Life Better to collect bikes at racks and re-stock them at station hubs.

“It is our hope that San Mateo’s fleet will give us an opportunity to figure out if a different model works better for a smaller city,” said Shiloh Ballard, executive director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.

By contrast, the larger Bay Area Bike Share program currently relies on a network of 70 tech-enabled docking stations for a fleet of 700 bikes. The higher number of stations, distributed across big cities like San Francisco and San Jose, gives users more choice in where they can rent and return bikes. Since rental systems are linked to kiosks and stations, it means the bike cannot be temporarily parked anywhere else.

Bay Area Bike Share was created in 2013 as a pilot between the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), and other transportation agencies for an estimated cost of $7 million. The program is beginning a 10-fold expansion this year as part of a public-private partnership that’s now administered by MTC and overseen by Motivate, a bike share operator with programs in cities like New York and Chicago. The expansion blankets San Francisco and San Jose, and brings Berkeley, Oakland, and Emeryville into the mix. By 2018, the program will offer 4,500 bikes in San Francisco, 1,500 in the East Bay, and 1,000 in San Jose.

Under the expanded system, annual memberships will run $149 a year, a jump from the current $88. Memberships for eligible low-income households will be $60 a year. Twenty percent of stations will be in MTC-designated “communities of concern.” Bay Area Bike Share will announce station locations in these and other neighborhoods starting this spring.

San Mateo also is in the process of finalizing station locations. It paid $85,000 for its bike fleet, and expects ongoing operations costs of $90,000 annually. That total is based on a $293,000 contract with Bikes Make Life Better, factoring in a $1,800 per bike service fee over a three-year period, plus a $23,000 system implementation fee. Baseline membership will run $15 per month.

User fee revenue and any corporate sponsorships San Mateo strikes will cover approximately 50 percent of the operating costs in the first year, and will eventually encompass the full operating costs once the system reaches a “stabilization level,” according to information presented to the city council on November 16.

“We know [Bay Bikes] will take time to build up users and ridership, but it will be an important amenity to our community,” Kleinbaum said, adding that marketing will follow through a “Connect San Mateo” campaign to raise transit option awareness. The long-term hope is that Bay Bikes will morph into a system that connects with Peninsula cities and other communities nearby.

However, the road to thriving bike sharing programs can prove bumpy. For example, Seattle’s bike share system, Pronto, has been plagued by insufficient funding and riders since launching in 2014 and needs a city bailout if it’s going to continue. And the original Bay Area Bike Share pilot included a trio of cities — Redwood City, Palo Alto, and Mountain View — that suffered low usage rates, and were not included when the growth plan was announced last year. The program will continue to operate in those cities through June.

SamTrans is assisting those cities in a “strategic planning effort that will help them decide whether to buy into the existing Motivate bike share system, pursue another type of bike share, or discontinue bike sharing services completely,” said Tasha Bartholomew, a communications officer with the transportation district.

MTC, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, and Caltrain also are involved in the planning, “but ultimately the three cities have to make decisions that work best for them,” Bartholomew added.

“It’s challenging right now comparing the different options,” said Jessica Manzi, a senior transportation coordinator for Redwood City, which is keeping tabs on Bay Bikes’ rollout and other alternatives.

Redwood City’s current ridership in Bay Area Bike Share is under 0.1 trips per bike per day. If it chooses to stay the course with Motivate, it would need to shell out $158,000 annually to operate seven stations with 117 docks. It could reduce the number of stations to cut its tab. However, fewer stations in a low-density area could make it even harder to generate rider interest and support growth.

Redwood City officials discussed several ideas during a March 8 committee meeting, including whether to focus resources on expanding bike parking downtown where there’s potential to house a tech-on-bike sharing system in the future.

“Compared to other communities, [bike share demand] has been quite a bit lower, but we’re also at an interesting point with development in downtown where a lot of growth is taking place,” Manzi said. “That might be a better match for bike sharing down the road.”

In the meantime, MTC has set aside $4.5 million to add more bikes to the Bay Area Bike Share network from “emerging communities” going forward. This would occur after the 7,000-bike expansion is completed.

It’s something Scott McDonald, a senior transportation planner for the Transportation Authority of Marin, is watching. A 2013 feasibility study laid out a framework for a system with 300 bikes across 37 Marin County stations.

Upfront capital and initial launch costs for various phases explored in the report would total anywhere from $250,000 in grant or other one-time funding to approximately $2.35 million for full system build-out, according to the study.

“At present time, we haven’t identified a grant to fund the upfront cost, which would include capital equipment,” McDonald said.

The City of Fremont also is interested in exploring bike share opportunities for the Downtown Fremont and Warm Springs BART stations, said associate transportation engineer Rene Dalton.

“We talked to MTC recently and they mentioned some grant opportunities within the next few months, so we’re monitoring that,” he said.

Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.