SF bikeshare service raised its rates. Users say it's now the same price as an Uber – San Francisco Chronicle

A person rides a Bay Wheels bike along the Embarcadero in San Francisco.
On a recent Sunday evening, Lauren White opened the Bay Wheels app to plan her weekday morning work commute when she received a pop-up alert about pricing changes for the bikeshare service.
“Maybe they lowered the prices,” White thought before clicking on the alert, given that San Francisco’s sole bikeshare program, owned and operated by Lyft, had increased prices and introduced a new fee structure the year before. “I clicked it, and I couldn’t believe that they had increased prices even more to the point where (riding Bay Wheels) is almost the same as taking an Uber or Lyft car with someone driving you.”
The price increase to use Bay Wheels’ fleet of electric bikes marks the latest development in the city’s micromobility saga and comes as the city is exploring whether it should municipalize bikeshares to stabilize costs to riders.
Several users, including White, posted about the increases on social media noting that, in some cases, using Bay Wheels e-bikes to get from one destination in the city to another costs more than using rideshares or taking Muni.
Under Bay Wheels’ pricing changes, which took effect Sept. 23, the per-minute cost to ride e-bikes rose from 15 cents to 20 cents for Bay Wheels members (annual membership: $159), and from 20 cents to 30 cents for non-members. Users are also now charged overage fees on a per-minute basis instead of per-15-minute fees in a move intended to simplify Bay Wheels’ pricing structure, according to Lyft. Rates for Bay Wheels’ less-popular manual bikes remain unchanged.
Bay Wheels attracted White and many other riders for its convenience. Though months earlier she’d purchased a Bay Wheels membership — which offers discounted e-bike fees — the fee increases have made using Bay Wheels less appealing. Using the program for weekday commutes to her job on Market Street would cost hundreds of dollars per month, White calculated, even with membership.
“The pricing will definitely affect my behavior,” White said. “When I look at spending $2.50 on a bus ride or $8-$12 on a one-way trip for the same distance, it doesn’t make a ton of sense from an economic perspective.”
Bikes are locked into a Bay Wheels docking station along Townsend Street in San Francisco.
Bikeshares have had a tumultuous history in San Francisco since making their debut in 2013. The city piloted a small fleet of bikes and stations before it began permitting private companies to operate bikeshare programs in 2018. Companies, such as Bird with e-scooters, acquired other rival companies, with Lyft now the city’s only bikeshare operator.
But bikeshares and scooters have irked some residents who say their use is not well-regulated.
And like public transit, Bay Wheels experienced sharp declines in ridership during the pandemic.
The bikeshare program saw a record 433,277 rides in February 2020 plummet to under 84,000 rides in April of that year, according to Bay Wheels data. Though monthly ridership has nearly doubled since January, Bay Wheels’ 210,949 rides in September reflects just half of its pre-pandemic peak.
“We are always working to improve the Bay Wheels system and these price changes will help ensure it can continue to grow and prosper,” Lyft spokesperson Jordan Levine said in a statement. “While riders who aren’t eligible for the reduced fare program will pay slightly more for e-bike rides, longer rides will be cheaper with the switch to per minute pricing rather than a flat fee for 15 minutes.”
In San Francisco, the city’s transportation agency oversees the micromobility market and does not set pricing.
That could change. The city’s budget and legislative analyst is expected to release a study this month examining options for a bikeshare program owned by the city.
Supervisor Dean Preston, who requested the study, said a city-owned service would better prioritize riders. He said he is “absolutely” in favor of the city subsidizing micromobility programs such as bikeshares, but “not to subsidize a private company.”
“As with many other things, what’s best for folks in the city doesn’t always line up with what’s best for profits of a private company,” Preston said.
While its recent price increases have upset many of its users, Bay Wheels’ pricing is not an outlier nationally and other cities where Lyft operates bikeshares — such as Boston — have more limited service options, according to Marcel Moran, a UC Berkeley city and regional planning doctoral candidate.
Nationally and internationally, cities and private companies have embraced widely varying pricing structures. In New York City, it costs 18 cents per minute to use Citi Bike’s e-bikes in addition to a $3.50 fee. In Los Angeles, bikeshares operated by L.A. Metro cost $1.75 for every half-hour.
San Francisco has spent years building up its bikeshare infrastructure and the city could consider either finding major advertising partners or implementing congestion pricing as a way to subsidize bikeshares, Moran said.
“There’s just this tension of, what’s this sweet spot for this kind of operation that meets our priorities in terms of product, expansion, geographic spread and pricing,” Moran said.
Ricardo Cano is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected]
Ricardo Cano covers transportation for The San Francisco Chronicle. Before joining The Chronicle in 2021, he covered K-12 education at CalMatters based in Sacramento and at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix as the newspaper’s education reporter. He received his bachelor’s degree in journalism at Fresno State.