Anyone who lived in or visited Santa Cruz in 2018 and 2019 most likely noticed the bright red electric bicycles being ridden and parked across the city.
Santa Cruz had partnered with Jump Bikes, a transportation company that provided affordable short-term bike rentals for trips within city limits. It was the first bike-share program ever implemented in the county.
Jump Bikes pulled out of the area in 2020, after the pandemic brought business to a halt. But local jurisdictions are once again looking to bring back a bike-share program—and this time it would be countywide.
A coalition from Santa Cruz County’s four cities, as well as UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College, have been working together to find a program that would, in theory, allow riders to take a trip from North Santa Cruz County all the way to Watsonville.
Claire Gallogly, a transportation planner with the city of Santa Cruz, said at a June 22 City Council meeting that this countywide expansion is overdue. When a Jump rider had tried to travel beyond city limits, the bike would shut down.
“We heard over and over that folks who were using the bikes didn’t necessarily stop their trip at city limits, and you would often see bikes piling up at Arana Gulch, or other various endpoints,” Gallogly said. “People were wanting to continue into Live Oak, into Capitola for further trips, but were not able to with the system we had at the time. Setting up a countywide system would allow those trips to take place.”
Gallogly said the bike-share market and technology have drastically changed since Santa Cruz last released a Request for Information (RFI) in 2017. The countywide group has been looking at which vendors would be able to bring a sustainable, safe and reliable system to the entire county.
The group considered a number of factors, including the cost for residents in lower-income areas, increased customer service and the ability for each jurisdiction to sign its own individual contract. The program must also be of no cost to the jurisdictions.
Proponents of the program say that having more transportation options will also help the environment. For example, Senior Civil Engineer for the city of Watsonville Alex Yasbeck said that such a program could help aid in Watsonville’s Climate Action Plan. The city created the plan in 2015, aiming to address issues of climate change by the year 2030.
“Transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas,” Yasbeck says. “[This] would help our residents by offering options that are not expensive or cumbersome, and don’t generate pollution.”
Santa Cruz City Councilman Justin Cummings expressed his support at the June 22 meeting, saying he had used Jump when it was around.
“So many people were using [the bikes],” he said. “I personally used my car way less … I’m glad to see this emphasis on bikes.”
Not all residents were happy with Jump Bikes. Abandoned bikes were not only being left on sidewalks, obstructing paths for pedestrians, but also in the middle of bike lanes, streets and even in front of people’s homes.
One woman called into the June 22 meeting to tell the story of how a Jump bike ended up in her driveway, blocking her way out.
“The problem is … if you don’t pay for it, you can’t move it,” she said.
Another woman, who said she was blind, claimed that Jump bikes were often left at intersections and in the way of ADA areas, and that there was no easy way for disabled people to report these issues.
Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner recalled that one of the biggest customer concerns with Jump was over their lack of responsive customer service.
“[Jump] had a local operating team, but the number to call was unresponsive,” Brunner said. “I think that was a missing component that did damage to a lot of public perception of the program.”
Gallogly said that all of these issues are being addressed in the new Request for Proposal (RFP). A major focus, she said, will be on providing better parking solutions for the bikes and increasing the number of docking stations throughout the county.
“If you can solve that parking issue, you can more easily address the problem of customer service and responsiveness,” she said.
They also plan to request for the selected vendor to hire a local team who is knowledgeable about the region and can respond to issues faster.
Stricter fees for parking violations, as well as incentives for using bikes properly (such as credits for future rides), are also possible.
Yasbeck points out that in Watsonville, certain laws should be changed in order to better serve the community through a bike-share program. This includes allowing bikes to ride on sidewalks if necessary, which would help seniors and slower riders stay out of fast, dangerous traffic.
And lowering the age of riders from 18 and over to 16 should be addressed as well, he says.
“A third of Watsonville residents are under 18,” he says. “It’s my personal feeling that if we allow 16-year-olds to have driver’s licenses, why can’t they ride an e-bike? I would love to see a push to allow younger riders to legally use these programs.”
Hesitancy in South County
Yasbeck presented the program to the Watsonville City Council at its meeting on June 22, on the recommendation of Public Works Director Steve Palmisano. The response was mostly positive, but some had concerns.
Compared to other areas of the county, Watsonville does not have that many safe bike lanes, especially on busy roads like Freedom Boulevard. Councilman Francisco Estrada cited this fact, along with a general lack of biking infrastructure, as reasons to be wary of bringing the program to the city, which has continuously ranked as one of the most dangerous municipalities of its size for pedestrians and cyclists.
“I feel like there will need to be a lot more work done, infrastructure-wise, education-wise, before the bikes can be rolled out here,” he said. “I love the idea, I just don’t want any more accidents in Watsonville. Anything we can do to make this program safer, I’m up for it.”
Some expressed concern over the bikes ending up on the slough trail systems or being stolen. Others wondered if Watsonville should look into doing its own program, so it can offer different types of bikes (tandem, tricycles, etc.) or scooters.
Yasbeck says that the outpouring of concern was somewhat surprising, but he understood that bike share is a new kind of venture for Watsonville.
“We really don’t know how this will work here,” he says. “We are a very different demographic. We don’t have the same number of tourists, or attractions. But if we implement it, stats will show what happens. From there we can see if there are better, more long-term solutions.”
When asked about Estrada’s concern, Yasbeck says that oftentimes, a stronger infrastructure follows an increased use of bikes.
“As more people ride bikes, support increases,” he says. “If you only build more bike lanes, people will be like, ‘Why’d you take my parking away?’ If we actually increase ridership, that can help shift perceptions.”
What lies ahead
The city councils have unanimously approved the RFP for the countywide bike-share program, and are now in the midst of commenting.
Yazbeck said that it was “amazing” to see all of the jurisdictions working together so well.
“I hope there are more interactions, more projects like this,” he says. “Honestly, it’s silly that we have these boundaries that keep us from working together more often.”
The countywide group aims to release the RFP in August, and from there they will begin the vendor selection process, which will probably take a few months.
After a vendor is selected, each jurisdiction will negotiate its own contract. That will allow them to decide things separately, make changes and fine-tune their specific programs.
At both the Santa Cruz and Watsonville meetings, council members brought up the possibility of the bike-share program bringing revenue to each city. Gallogly said that they are looking at revenue-sharing items, but that they didn’t want revenue to outweigh the public and environmental benefit of bike share.
“I don’t want more fees to be passed on to the users,” she said. “We want to keep prices low enough to get people to think, ‘Bike share can be my first choice.’”
Steve Trujillo, Watsonville resident and current Cabrillo College trustee, echoed those sentiments during the Watsonville meeting.
“Sure, we need to bring money to the city, but we also need new forms of transportation,” he said. “It’s about expanding our horizons. We need to realize that we have to get away from cars as our sole source of transportation.”