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Uber’s partnership with Jump could put the future of stationless bikes in San Francisco at risk

Uber users will be able to book a Jump bike from the Uber app.

A mobile phone shows UberBike service in the Uber app, with an Uber Jump bike parked in the background.
UberBike service in the Uber app

Dockless bike-sharing company Jump just became the first U.S.-based company to work with a ride-hail app. Soon, San Franciscans will be able to locate the nearest Jump bike straight from the Uber app, making it easier to plan out the first and last mile of trips.

However, the splashy announcement could put pressure on a pilot program that is stretched thin by design. Jump, which received its permit to operate an 18-month pilot in San Francisco in January, can only provide 250 of its stationless bikes in the city.

Opening up those 250 bikes to Uber users in the city, in addition to the customers separately using the Jump app, would exacerbate demand in a city with more than 850,000 residents. The partnership might undercut the viability of this new form of bike-sharing.

Both regulators and stakeholders worry a poorly executed pilot program could perpetuate concerns that bike-sharing is inherently inequitable and does not increase access to reliable and affordable transportation options.

Nine months into the pilot, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority is expected to evaluate Jump’s performance to determine if it should be allowed to increase its number of bikes to 500.

While Jump is limiting availability to Uber users, successfully and equitably meeting demand with just 250 bikes can become a near impossible balancing act. Jump spokesperson Rikin Diwan acknowledged the precarious situation the company was in but said they were confident they could prove there was demand for a service like theirs that could be executed responsibly.

Additionally, Jump is the only dockless bike provider that has been granted a permit by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority and can only operate e-bikes — a stipulation that came out of a settlement with incumbent bike-share service Ford GoBike. The network, which is run and operated by New York-based company Motivate, is sponsored by Ford.

Motivate, which also operates Citibike in New York City, struck a 10-year contract to be the sole bike-share provider in San Francisco in 2015. As part of its settlement with the SFMTA, Motivate agreed to an exception to its exclusivity so long as the new entrant did not directly compete with its service. In this case, that means Jump can only operate e-bikes in the city.

Through the pilot, the SFMTA intends to evaluate the efficacy and merits of starting a dockless bike-sharing program. However, competing companies LimeBike and Ofo as well as some city supervisors including Malia Cohen of San Francisco’s 10th district and Ahsha Safai of the 11th district have questioned whether this pilot could in fact hurt the industry.

Representatives from these companies argue the limited pilot could perpetuate the perception that bike-sharing is often inequitable and only serves upscale neighborhoods and would not provide sufficient data to evaluate whether this new form of bike-sharing would work in San Francisco.

“Because of the design of the [Ford GoBike] bike-share rollout program in my district and other communities in what some consider to be the outskirts of San Francisco, we won’t get bike stations until the fall of this year,” Supervisor Cohen said at a hearing on Monday. “Despite the program beginning in June of 2017.”

Cohen specifically questioned the logic behind only accepting a single provider, saying that the primary benefit of bike-sharing — opening up access to affordable transportation — would not be realized this way.

“Historically there has been an unquantifiable disinvestment in transportation access,” she continued. “It’s for this reason I see bike-share as the next best thing.”

Furthermore, Supervisors Cohen and Safai questioned the process through which the SFMTA chose Jump in the first place. At the hearing, Safai called it indefensible and accused the SFMTA of trying to appease Motivate.

“It seems to me this was being driven by one branch of government to appease a contract that was designed before I was even on this board,” he said. “You know what, Jump might be the right company ... but the process by which you got to this point does not seem defensible in any way.”

“You have an exclusive agreement with one company that you want to avoid litigation with,” he continued. “So maybe you need to litigate that and maybe we need to have more competition and more choice for the general public.”

Both LimeBike and Ofo are calling for the agency to reopen the application process with more transparency. In letters to the agency, the companies claim they were blindsided by the decision — sent out overnight — to award a single company with a permit.

“The SFMTA can exercise its discretion as to the number of permits it issues,” SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose told Recode.

Furthermore, Rose said all parties were given the same information at the same time and Jump was the only company to send in a complete permit application and meet all of their requirements.

Specifically, the agency is claiming LimeBike — which sent in an application along with Spin — did not meet the data-sharing requirements the city had laid out for the pilot program.

The SFMTA asked these companies to provide real-time location information for all of the bikes in their fleet.

However, LimeBike contends they did meet that requirement but also expressed their concerns with this process of data-sharing.

The LimeBike application reads:

“Most importantly, we believe this exposes the citizens of San Francisco (and the City & County of San Francisco) to unnecessary risks. With current technology, someone with the right skills can identify a person with as little as four location data points, even with the data otherwise anonymized, so sharing that data openly will pose significant privacy and security concerns.”

For now, the companies have been effectively banned from operating in San Francisco for the duration of this pilot, straining a relationship that will be integral to the proliferation of stationless bike-sharing in the city.

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