New bike rental stations have been cropping up around downtown San Jose as part of a massive regional expansion bankrolled by Ford Motor Company. The rebranding, which launched earlier this summer in partnership with bike-sharing operator Motivate and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), comes with a $49 million investment from Ford for advertising and naming rights.
In the coming year, San Jose will get about 1,000 new bicycles—called Ford GoBikes—out of the deal and see the number of stations increase from 24 to 80. To date, 23 bike docks have replaced car parking spots on West Julian Street, while other stations appeared near the Diridon Station, Cahill Park, SAP Center and City Hall.
The goal is to build the network up to 546 stations and 7,000 GPS-enabled bikes in San Jose, San Francisco and parts of the East Bay. According to Ford GoBike’s official website, that tenfold increase would make the Bay Area-wide program the second-biggest bike-sharing enterprise in the U.S.
As the number of bicycles grows, however, so will the cost to ride them. Though the service area will be much larger, un-discounted annual memberships will tick up from $88 to $149.
Bay Area residents enrolled in CalFresh, PG&E Care or other programs that serve low-income communities will be eligible for a discounted membership of $ for the first year. Riders enrolled in the discounted “Bike Share For All” program will then pay $5 a month ($60 a year) for each year after that.
What Ford plans to get out of bike sharing—other than branding—has been a source of speculation. According to financial advice company The Motley Fool, Ford’s foray into urban bike sharing has more to do with shuttle buses than bikes.
Last year, around the same time Ford announced its plans to invest in bike sharing, the car company bought Chariot, a crowd-sourced shuttle-bus service. Chariot crowd-sources routes by mining data from users’ cellphone apps. The more data Chariot gleans about how people get around, the more useful it can be to customers.
What does that have to do with bike sharing? Jim Hackett, CEO of the Blue Oval’s Palo Alto-based affiliate Ford Smart Mobility LLC, answered that question last year in a presentation to investors:
Last week, in San Francisco, [Ford CEO] Mark [Fields] and I announced a partnership with Motivate. This is a bike sharing company. Those of you who live in New York will know the CitiBike [New York City's bike-sharing program, run by Motivate]. And in fact, in New York last week, they were telling us they did 62,000 shares in 1 day. 62,000 shares in 1 day in New York City.
So we introduced this in San Francisco. What we're doing differently in San Francisco that isn't done in New York is we put telemetry on that bike. Telemetry is a form of communication, so now the bike is pinging data to us. Listen, here's the deal. The opportunity is not bikes. That's not why Ford's in it. The opportunity is data, and the data is super valuable because it tells us these invisible paths that people are taking in this complex city in terms of how they want to get around. And there's something else cool about it because we can take that data and we can connect it in ways that our new shuttle is going to connect to the cloud as well.
The potential tracking system has raised concerns in some neighborhoods, including the Mission in San Francisco, where activists are fighting the addition of a GoBike station.
San Jose Inside asked Ford Motors about the Chariot-GoBike connection and whether the company plans to mine data about rider whereabouts for commercial purposes. Ford spokeswoman Angie Kozleski said that while GoBikes do not collect real-time data right now, they do have the potential to do so.
“The Ford GoBikes do not include technology that collects real-time data (i.e. weather conditions and bike availability) but the potential remains,” she said. “We do believe that cities can derive tremendous value in insights that could come from capturing data from many forms of transportation system.”
MTC spokesman John Goodwin downplayed GoBikes’ telemetric capabilities.
“I am curious to know where you may have read about Ford GoBike and data collection on routes; as any such report is untrue,” he told San Jose Inside in an email. “Neither MTC’s contract with Motivate nor Motivate’s contract with Ford calls for the use of any kind of tracking to identify popular routes. Not in San Francisco, not in the East Bay and not in San Jose. Motivate does collect monthly data on trips (start and end times, start and end stations), ridership (annual members vs. 1-day or 3-day memberships), bike and dock availability, and daily weather conditions in each service area. Motivate then makes this data publicly available. Examples may be found here.”
After reviewing the report of Hackett’s presentation to investors, Goodwin followed up with another email.
“My take,” he wrote, “is that the usage data will allow Motivate, Ford or any other interested party to collect trip origin [and] destination pairs, without identifying the specific route used on a given trip.”
Dani Simons, a spokeswoman for Motivate, confirmed Goodwin’s assertion.
“The bikes do not use telemetry or GPS at this time,” she said. “We collect information on the start points and end points of the bike trips and plan to make this public in an anonymized fashion in the next few months and then on a regular basis thereafter.”
Information gathered could help local governments improve their transportation systems, Simons added.
“We do believe that cities can derive tremendous value in insights that could come from capturing data from Ford GoBike,” she noted. “It may help inform decisions about bike infrastructure planning, and it can also help inform efforts to encourage more biking. We continue to work with the city of San Jose, the MTC and our other partners to find ways to collect data that respects our riders privacy but also helps to be part of a data-driven transportation ecosystem.”