‘I canceled my membership’ — customer backlash after Lyft hikes Bay Area bikeshare prices

Lyft announced a price hike and changes to its Bay Wheels bikeshare program last week that sent its customers reeling.

On March 2 Bay Area e-bike riders will begin paying per-minute fees, and the company will charge an extra $2 when riders don’t leave their bikes at a sidewalk dock.

For members, the e-bike payments used to essentially be a flat fee — but now they will have to watch the clock when they ride.

The changes drew a sharp rebuke from loyal riders on social media and on Lyft’s own announcement page.

Many said the changes pushed prices so high that they’d cancel their memberships and buy their own e-bikes. They also prompted riders to call into question the viability of bikeshare as a for-profit model, instead of a government-subsidized one.

“Lyft — will you be sharing an easy way to cancel memberships as of 3/2?” commenter Nicole Belanger asked Lyft on its post announcing the price change.

“Wow, yeah this is terrible. I would have happily paid close to double in subscription for the freedom that the e-bikes offer. But $0.15 per minute and $2 to park outside of docks completely takes that away,” wrote Bay Wheels rider Aleksander H. Rendtslev on Lyft’s blog post.

The San Francisco Examiner also asked readers to react to the price changes via Twitter. Many said they would cancel their memberships in response to not only the price hikes, but the difficulty in navigating the pricing structure, which features a different per-minute fee structure, and different charges depending on your membership and where you ride.

Readers even shared hastily-drawn diagrams and tables to try and make sense of Bay Wheels’ confusing new prices.

“I’m impressed that Lyft could come up with such a complicated pricing scheme. They would never think of making car share riders price their own rides like they are trying to do to bike share [sic] riders,” bicycle advocate Kyle Grochmal wrote on Twitter.

Bay Wheels rider Taylor Ahlgren, a local bicycling advocate, wrote on Twitter, “Bike share [sic] should be the cheapest easiest option. Bay Wheels pricing doesn’t achieve that. My wife and I got an ebike [sic] last week to share, which will substitute the vast majority of our Bay Wheels trips. We will cancel our annual membership.”

Under the new pricing structure, Bay Wheels members will pay fifteen cents a minute for ebike trips, and non-members will pay 20 cents a minute for those ebike trips. Low-income “Bike Share for All” program members will pay five cents a minute for ebike trips, with those fees capped at $1.

Starting and ending in different zones can adjust the price.

E-bike pricing used to be the same as what Bay Wheels charged for its classic bike rental, which remains unchanged at $2 for one ride up to 30 minutes for non-members, and a $15 per month payment for a monthly membership, which allows for unlimited 45-minute trips. Trips over 45 minutes cost an extra $3 per 15 minutes.

“It’s horrible,” wrote Twitter user @james94_SF in response to the Examiner. “Someone like myself who bikes for 30 minutes each way to get to work every day (250 days/year) will see their costs go from $149/year to $1149/year, an almost eightfold increase!”

The pricing change is particularly galling to some riders as Bay Wheels has a monopoly on bikeshare in San Francisco, guaranteed by an exclusivity agreement signed with Bay Area cities and negotiated by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Lyft sued the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency last year after it tried to grant permits for other e-bike bikeshare operators locally.

The SFMTA lost, and had to allow Lyft the first right of refusal for e-bike operations in San Francisco.

Even now, The City is in negotiations with Uber-owned bikeshare company Jump to see if it can continue operating in San Francisco. Jump’s permit expires March 1.

When asked to respond to the new price hikes, SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said, “Bay Wheels is a private service operating under no public subsidy. However, as a private company, it is our hope that the pricing will respond to market demand.”

Kato noted Bay Wheels did not change the price of pedal bikes, added fee caps for traveling to far-flung parts of The City, and maintained a “fair price” for its low-income program, Bikeshare for All.

Bikeshare is valued by many bicycle riders and Bay Area denizens as a cheap alternative to driving and public transit, but Bay Wheels’ latest pricing structure change had many riders wondering publicly: Why do mental math to ride an e-bike when you can just hail a Lyft or Uber car to make a trip? Or take a bus?

“We are engaging our community partners and members to inform the best approach to pricing ebike rides so we can provide the best service possible, since ebikes have higher operational costs per ride than pedal bikes,” a Bay Wheels spokesperson wrote in a blog post on Feb. 21.

Bay Wheels also warned customers of the price hike in a December blog post, and told customers specifically it was coming in March.

“Until March, Bay Area riders will continue to be able to ride Bay Wheels ebikes at no extra cost, a testament to the appreciation we have for our riders loyalty following the Bay Wheels ebike service interruption earlier this year,” a company spokesperson wrote in the blog post.

A company spokesperson added, “This new pricing will take into account rider trip length, since we know riders prefer to pay for the amount they ride, and will aim to encourage parking behavior that helps our system remain balanced and accessible for everyone. It will be guided by our top priorities of retaining the value of membership and ensuring Bay Wheels is accessible and equitable for all communities.”

The new pay hikes also drew soft critique from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which noted the need for bikeshare in the Bay Area.

“At the end of the day, we want more people on bikes,” Brian Wiedenmeier, the executive director of the bicycle coalition, wrote in a statement. Widenmeier noted the importance of the low-income bikeshare program Bike Share for All, and said the coalition would continue to monitor the program’s overall ridership numbers to ensure its viability.

For everyday Bay Wheels riders, however, the new pricing structure is a clear turnoff.

“Current (and soon to be ex) membership holder,” wrote Twitter user @bradpittalism. “Was so excited when ebikes [sic] came back — they quickly became my favorite commute mode. Now? I’ll probably just buy a beater bike.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

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