Houston Bike-Share Is Struggling. Public Transit Is Stepping In.
Faced with a seven-figure gap in its operating budget and unable to find a corporate sponsor, Houston BCycle, the city’s 10-year-old bike-share network, could soon shut down entirely. But the local public transit authority may step in to replace it.
Houston BCycle is having a rough ride.
Last fall, the nonprofit bike-share system announced that, after having grown to 150 stations over the previous decade, it had a big gap in its operating budget that it had no way to fill. It began closing stations while talking with the city of Houston and the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Metro) about funding solutions and searching for a corporate naming sponsor for its stations and bikes. Last month, it announced that funding was still elusive, and the system would have to shut down entirely.
But while the city hasn’t identified a way to save the system, it’s also not willing to let it go. The same week that BCycle announced it would shut down, the City Council approved $500,000 in funding to keep it operating through next spring. And the Metro board took the first steps toward building an entirely new bike-share system of its own — one that would be geared toward transit users and fully integrated with the Metro system.
Bikers and advocates say bike-share has more than proven its value as part of the transportation network in Houston and most other big cities. Now they’re hoping Metro can build a state-of-the-art network of its own, without surrendering the gains Houston BCycle has made over the last 11 years.
Biking in Houston
Enclosing more than 600 square miles of land, Houston is one of the most sprawled-out cities in the United States. A growing network of bike lanes makes it comparatively easier and safer to ride a bike in the denser downtown areas of the city, says Joe Cutrufo, executive director of the advocacy group BikeHouston.
The city is working to build 1,800 miles of “high-comfort” bike lanes. Already 400 miles of lanes are built, and another 150 miles are in the works, according to David Fields, Houston’s chief transportation planner. Improving street infrastructure is a top priority: Surveys have found most people say more bike lanes and trails are the primary thing that would make them bike more.
But a close second is secure bike parking, Cutrufo notes, and bike-share can play a major role there. Bike-share systems allow people to ride from point to point without having to worry about storage in their homes or locking up a bike in public. They eliminate barriers for some potential riders. Houston doesn’t have a big reputation as a bike city, but bike-share has helped it make improvements.
“Even with the struggles that BCycle has had in the last few years, I still see people riding those bikes every day,” Cutrufo says. “I use them myself. I know this is a need in Houston.”
Building a Bike-Share Network
Houston BCycle was launched in 2012 with a small grant from the city. Gradually the system grew from three stations to 150. As BCycle expanded in Houston, the board tried to emphasize equity, pushing for system expansion in places where car ownership was relatively low. Ridership peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 with 300,000 rides, says James Llamas, a member of Houston BCycle’s board of directors since 2014. In the last few years, ridership has leveled out at around 250,000 rides a year, Llamas says.
“It was important to us that we had stations in places that would help people link to transit … and in neighborhoods that haven’t always gotten their fair share of transportation funding,” Llamas says. “All of that was going perfectly well, except that there’s a gap between the operating costs and the user-generated revenue that those stations were pulling in.”
The BCycle board hired a sports marketing firm to find a corporate sponsor for the system, a common setup in other big cities. It would take about a million dollars a year of subsidy to keep the existing system in good working order — “a rounding error” in the larger transportation spending in the city and county, Llamas says.
There could be a few reasons why the system wasn’t able to find a sponsor at that level, including outdoor advertising regulations and the fact that Houston’s sprawl means each bike and station would only be seen by a small share of city residents. In any event, Llamas says, no one stepped up.
Integrating With Public Transit
Houston Metro began talking with BCycle soon after it announced its funding struggles and began closing stations last year. For a time, the transit system considered taking over BCycle’s operations entirely. Metro’s board voted at the beginning of this year to provide some funding to BCycle and study whether it should take over the system. Ultimately it decided not to take over BCycle, and instead to launch a bike-share system of its own. Metro wants to build out a bike-share system that’s integrated with transit, where riders can use one app to plan and pay for a trip using bikes, buses and trains, says Tom Lambert, Metro’s president and CEO.
Lambert says BCycle’s users tend to be recreational riders. Metro is targeting riders who will rely on all parts of the transit system to get around town. It’s taking a page from cities like Los Angeles and Austin, which have integrated their bike-share networks and their transit systems, Lambert says. Last month, the board voted to start a contract with PBSC Urban Solutions, a large bike-share operator owned by Lyft. The agency will begin opening stations with all electric bikes. The bikes can be recharged at the stations — a major operational improvement over the existing system.
“The question is what happens between now and then,” Llamas says.
The city’s $500,000 grant will help keep the existing system in place, but only temporarily. Some advocates hope the city, Metro and anchor institutions like universities and colleges can help keep BCycle running until Metro’s bike-share system is big enough to replicate the existing system, if not take it over altogether. It’s taken time to build up the visibility and reliability of bike-share in Houston, Cutrufo says. Metro may end up with a better system, but not if it strands existing riders in the meantime, he says.
“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here,” he says.