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Free bike rental program for SF State students threatened after Lyft buys bikeshare company

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City officials are considering pulling funding from a program offering free bike rentals to low-income students at San Francisco State University following Lyft’s acquisition of Ford GoBike. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The City may withdraw funding intended to offer free bike rentals to San Francisco State University’s poorest students due to the program’s connection with ride-hail company Lyft.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s board does not want taxpayer dollars to be spent on ride-hail companies Uber and Lyft, and now some members of the transportation authority board — who are also The City’s Board of Supervisors — are considering withholding funds for the free bike program because Lyft recently acquired the company providing the bikes.

“It seems to me we have not gone to Lyft and said … ‘do you want to offer low income individuals at SF state a discounted rate?’” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, at the transportation authority’s regular meeting Tuesday. Lyft is a multi-billion dollar company, he said, and they should offer free bikes.

“I don’t think public dollars should go into that,” he said.

Lyft did not respond to requests for comment.

SFSU asked the transportation authority for $56,000 to help fund a two-year pilot program to provide low-income students free memberships to the Ford GoBike bikeshare program, which provides thousands of rentable bikes across the Bay Area. The funds would pay for memberships for as many as 400 Pell Grant-eligible students, who fall into low-income brackets, and 150 non-Pell Grant-eligible students, and 300 single month passes for students.

The request was expected to be smooth sailing, supervisors said at a transportation authority board meeting last Tuesday. That is, until ride-hail giant Lyft acquired Motivate, the company that administers Ford GoBike.

That triggered transportation authority staff to recommend against funding the program, to remain consistent with the board’s past policy expression to not allow taxpayer dollars to be spent on the ride-hail companies. The board first established this precedent in July last year, when they voted to stop an emergency ride home program, which is open to all San Francisco workers, from providing funding for Lyft and Uber rides. The board voiced concern that Uber and Lyft were not sharing vital trip data that transportation planners could use to curb The City’s growing traffic problem, which the board partly attributes to Uber and Lyft.

No private data means no public dollars, the board essentially said.

Tuesday, however, Supervisor Malia Cohen broke with that past policy, and said she doesn’t believe the bikeshare funding should be denied.

“I ask that we rethink this position,” Cohen told her colleagues. The program is needed, she said, “particularly at one of the least accessible college campuses, in quite frankly one of the most, if not the most, expensive cities in the world.”

Supervisor Norman Yee, however, said he worried “what that does is give them free advertisements. And eventually they capitalize on that free advertisement to pay for their services.”

Some supervisors agreed with Peskin, including Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who said “this is a good opportunity for Lyft to step up and provide service where it’s needed.”

The supervisors ultimately decided to table the matter until a future meeting, giving them and transportation authority staff time to negotiate a solution.

In the meantime, SFSU Sustainabiliy Specialist Nick Kordesch said, in a statement, that the universty is “pursuing other alternatives” to fund the memberships.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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