Jay Walder on What’s Next for America’s Biggest Bike-Share Company

Last fall, former MTA chief Jay Walder took over as CEO of Alta Bicycle Share, part of a restructuring that injected new resources and expertise into a company that had struggled to keep up with the demands of running bike-share systems in half a dozen major American cities.

Jay Walder. Photo: fortunelivemedia/Flickr

This morning, the company came out with a new name, Motivate, one of the first public announcements in what’s expected to be a year of rapid improvement and growth. (Another piece of news dropped last week: Jersey City has picked the company to run its new bike-share system, which will be accessible to Citi Bike members.)

I got a few minutes this afternoon to chat with Walder about the new name, the status of the Citi Bike overhaul, and his vision for the company. Here’s our Q&A, edited for length and clarity.

What led to renaming the company and why did you go with “Motivate”?

It was a requirement to rename the company after taking over. We engaged in a discussion of our values, and what we want to achieve. We think it fits in with the way people think of [bike-share] in their life. When I think about it, I use words like “action” and “energy” and “movement.” I think it also reflects that as a company we have to be continually moving and changing and evolving in the cities and urban areas where we are.

After we ran a short post this morning about the name change, readers immediately wanted to know more about efforts to make Citi Bike more reliable. What can you tell us about how that’s going?

When we took over, we said we would be working over the winter to use this time to make Citi Bike more reliable. We said we would overhaul all 6,000 bikes in our fleet, and that is underway right now.

We’ve also worked to build up our team. We hired a VP of technology, and we are staffing up behind him. I just met a woman hired this week to join the tech team.

We’re working very actively with our suppliers to improve the technology we’re offering to our customers. Things are actively proceeding so we can build on their affection for the service, with docking that’s easy, real time information at their fingertips, and when things break, that we’re in a position to make quick repairs and get bikes back on the streets.

In your announcement today, you emphasized the regional potential of bike-share systems.

I think to the credit of a lot of municipal areas around the country, people have looked to bike-share as a regional approach. The Boston system is actually Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville. The idea that you can get on a bike in Cambridge and ride to Copley feels absolutely natural in that space.

Now in Jersey City, we’re looking at crossing natural boundaries. You can cross the river and use a bike [in either Jersey City or New York], even if you can’t ride the same bike.

What we should really be thinking about is a vision of what we want and can see bike-share being. You may be an annual member in New York, but if you go down to DC and want to take out a bike, that is a new experience to you. You have to register again. One of the things we should be looking at is making this experience completely seamless.

Do you see the bike-share experience integrating more seamlessly with transit?

[Bike-share] has happened as a largely separate mode of transport. But the natural evolution is that we do need to be thinking about that. If you look at the Los Angeles bike-share request for proposals, it is very much putting that idea in front of providers, the idea of integrating with the transit system. I want to see us make that integration.

Looking forward, I’m less interested in a card, and more interested in how we use our mobile devices.

In terms of fare payment, or real-time information – or both?

Both and more. When you think about apps that are really great, they hit you in that sweet spot and they feel natural and intuitive. We have to do much more. The payment process, the real-time information — all across the board there has to be an evolution in the way we’re thinking about that.

How does your experience running large transit agencies translate to running Motivate? What lessons from that world have you been able to apply to this one?

I have to tell you that I’ve immensely enjoyed making this jump. In some ways it may seem strange to people, going from such large agencies to bike-share. But I think the nature of the bike-share industry is that it’s a ground floor industry. In just four years, it’s grown exponentially. It’s incredibly exciting to be dealing with that. The MTA — the New York City subway — has been running for 110 years, so it’s a very different feel.

Nevertheless, many of the things people expect from their transit system, they expect from their bike-share system. The rigor of analysis and operations that we bring to transit we need to bring to bike-share.

One benefit that bike-share has is that there is a huge degree of affection for bike-share. People love it. Email after email I receive from people, they say, “I love bike-share.” Then they may say “…but you need to fix this,” but bike-share is something that people really, really want to see succeed.

If anything, some frustrations come from the potential pace of change. I was away from New York for three years, and it changed so much in that time. Bike-share is one of the only forms of urban transportation that can change quickly.

Today’s announcement mentions that Motivate is now positioned to “bring bike-share to scale.” Can you elaborate on that? Have we seen what it looks like to operate bike-share at scale in an American city yet?

New York has 6,000 bikes going to 12,000 bikes with the next round of expansion. I keep asking people if 20,000 is reasonable to expect, and most people think that’s too low.

San Francisco has 700 bikes today in an area that stretches all the way to San Jose. That was a pilot. No one believes that 700 bikes is enough for those areas.

No matter how many bikes a city has now, they could have an order of magnitude more. I don’t think we’ve hit scale anywhere yet.

  • BBnet3000

    Love the talk about the possibility of using bike shares in other cities seamlessly. This is exactly what I’d like to see happen with transit as well.

  • pelican58

    It sounds to me that they are trying to fix the bugs in the current software, not to start over from scratch with 8D.

  • com63

    Every time I’m in DC, I salivate over using my Citibike key to check a bike out. This would be a great feature, even if you had to pay per day/ride (say $1 per ride or $3/day or something like that).

  • I wouldn’t read much into “working very actively with our suppliers.” 8D is also one of their current suppliers.

  • kevin

    Agreed. Given that many B-cycle systems already offer reciprocity, it seems a very doable improvement in the near-term for other vendors/operators.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I still think the key from the $ perspective is health care.

    Health insurers want their customers to exercise to cut health are costs, and some subsidize health care, but they are going to want proof that the exercise really took place.

    If they have the technology to track users, they could offer to share that info with health insurers which agree to help pay for the service. And if the health insurers (or public health authorities) go along, the technology could be marketed for use with bikes the people own themselves.

  • murphstahoe

    In the Bay Area, I think the killer app for bike share would be to get employers to sponsor bike share kiosks on/near their campuses. What’s the good of having bike share at a Caltrain station if you can’t ride the bike to work? A kiosk and bikes at an office park is a lot cheaper than paying for a google bus.

  • Ben_Kintisch

    Building to scale in NYC would be huge. As big as Citibike is right now, the biggest stations near Penn Station, Port Authority and Grand Central are gone in one or two bus or train loads of people.
    Big midtown office towers house 1000 or more workers. One dock that holds 10 bikes does not adequately handle the needs of one office tower, let alone 20 or 30 towers in crowded Midtown or Downtown.
    I imagine as the system grows out geographically, they should also do major infill, ie one dock per city block in the densest parts of midtown and downtown.
    Also, Motivate should look into “selling” a dock placement for a big building or institution. I imagine NYU, or a big hospital, or a luxury apartment builder, may each be interested in purchasing higher density of a bike share system.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m not sure if they’d want to buy, but they might offer space if they have it.

    Meanwhile, there is some unused street level space on the Vanderbilt side of GCT, on either side of the 43rd Street entrance. They should load it up with docks.

  • Nailin4Palin

    Great news to hear Jay Walder will again have a voice on transit in NY, even if it is not as prominent as his former role.

  • Sean Kelliher

    There was a rack on Vanderbilt just north of 42nd Street for a while. It was a prime location and seemed popular. When I passed by on my way to work, most of the bikes (sometimes all) were gone and there were people hanging around waiting for ones to arrive.

    Ironically, the rack is now gone and has been replaced with (get ready to sigh) placard parking.

    Citibike supposedly relocated this rack to Pershing Square to form a larger station there. Still, it seems like a bad decision. The Vanderbilt location was convenient for GCT commuters wanting to get a bike and ride North or West. Now they have to cross busy 42nd Street twice to do so.

    On the bright side, three or four people now get a free place to park their cars.

  • HamTech87

    Integrating with transit is so important. I was blown away by a transportation information screen over the counter at the Java Shack cafe in Arlington, Virginia. On the screen was real-time data showing the arrivals for all the nearby buses, MetroRail lines, AND the number of bikes and open docks in the nearby Capital BikeShare stations.

    Yes, I could have gotten this info on an app, but having it so prominently displayed showed its importance and made me want to hang out there.

  • HamTech87

    I wonder if the Twin Cities’ NiceRide BikeShare sponsor, BlueCross BlueShield, is tracking users?

  • dr2chase

    Another possibility for all these systems would be some sort of a “try it” to entice non-users (like me — I have my own non-shared bikes, and never figured out if it would even make sense to sign on to Hubway in some form or another). If it turns out that I could easily use Bike Share, either when I travel to other cities, or just if I don’t feel like riding all the way in to Boston, that would be nice. I am sure that there are other potential users from the other end of this; they usually drive and walk or transit and walk, but if the speedbumps to first use were extremely low (and maybe they are, maybe all it needs as some well-targeted advertising or even just a well-written explanation).

  • com63

    Great idea. They should give away the first two rides to get people hooked.

  • EC

    I love these systems, but my local city councilor (despite his being a daily cyclist) is quite skeptical about their long-term financial viability. I’ve tried to look into it, so that I could convince him he was wrong, but I’ve had a really hard time finding good information about bike-share budgeting, in particular information about operating costs and operating revenue. Can anyone point me to any hard info, or a decent study on the matter?

  • EC

    That is cool.

  • J

    Great news from Jay Walder! I think someone of his stature heading this organization is symbolic of where bike share is headed as opposed to where it is now. He seems to see the big picture and how much it could improve and grow. Very exciting!

  • Jonathan R

    Let’s talk first about using bike share in other BOROUGHS, like the Bronx.

  • I believe the Bcycle systems track your distance and calories

  • Sharon_McNary_at_KPCC_news

    I would have been curious about his reaction to the apparent failure of the bike share experiment at OCTA. Any mention of that?

  • Kenny Easwaran

    They’re different issues. In other boros, they have to get physical bikes and racks on the ground, but once they’re there, the integration is automatic. In other cities, they already have the bikes and racks, but the integration needs work. Both need to be done, but they are different problems, so it makes sense to tackle each as the relevant resources become ready, rather than saying that one must come first.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    The main competitor, B-Cycle, does seem to allow some sort of reciprocity. Thus, annual members in Austin, Charlotte, Houston, San Antonio, Madison, etc. seem to all be able to use each other’s bikes when visiting.

  • Larry Littlefield

    No conflict with parked cars under the viaduct. It’s just empty space.

  • Seth Rosenblum

    I think it’s impossible to overstate how important this is. Having inter-city bike-share systems could easily make biking the default form of urban transportation for tourists, and would increase the membership base to people who have a bike at home, but just don’t have a good way to get around when traveling. The potential increase in bicycling mode share in cities like New York, Boston, D.C. and Chicago is huge.

  • Alex Brideau III

    It seems to me like they didn’t really give it enough time to take root.

  • Alex Brideau III

    It would certainly cause me to patronize such a business. Added to my shortlist.

    This is my first time hearing about TransitScreen. Interesting service, expecially their SmartWalk service. Would like to see more businesses in LA get onboard with it, especially those in transit-oriented areas.

  • ranzchic

    Anyone with a half a brain that follows bike share knew the OCTA efforts was doomed to fail. It was messy plan with a messy implementation.

    The implementation was too small, the bicycle improvements in the area were too little, the operator was the inexperienced Bike Nation (apparently it is OC based though) and a whole host of other problems. But really, the biggest problem was the small implementation of the pilot. It was already doomed before the first pedals were even kicked.

    From my perspective, the Fullerton failure should have no bearing compared to the success of the bigger implementations in other parts of the country.

  • ranzchic

    Bike share should be seen as part of the larger public transit network and should be funded as such.

  • EC

    Yes, that’s clearly true. My city councilor is worried that actually running the system is going to be expensive, and I want to show him that it’s competitive with transit. So I’m curious about where to find reliable numbers on things like operating costs per trip. (For other kinds of transit, the agency in charge usually publishes data like that, and the Federal government has data as well, but Boston’s Hubway seems pretty opaque, and I haven’t seen good numbers for bikeshare in general.)

  • Any business in LA could put up a screen showing NextBus or Nextrip, it’s pretty easy. Even just a repurposed old tablet would do fine.

    Integrating realtime transit data with realtime bike share data is something that developers are still wrangling with, but certainly possible.

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New Name for Alta Bicycle Share: “Motivate”

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After new management took over in 2014, injecting capital and expertise that’s expected to turn around a sputtering operation, the company formerly known as Alta Bicycle Share has adopted a new name: Motivate. (A verb! Very active transportation-y.) Motivate operates bike-share systems in New York, DC, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle, making it the […]