Honolulu’s popular bike-share program, Biki, has taken a beating ever since a recent city audit examined the costs to help keep the distinctive fleet of aquamarine bikes zipping around town.
Specifically, the City Auditor’s office calculated last month that the city missed out on more than $460,000 in parking revenues and permit fees, although city transportation officials say that sum is vastly inflated.
Further, the auditor’s office said that Biki lacks fiscal transparency despite all the support it gets from the city, and that the Department of Transportation Services needs to do a better job overseeing Biki’s finances.
The report covered the concerns about Biki’s relationship to the city. It made good suggestions for more stringent oversight. However, per the City Council’s instructions, it only evaluated the program’s costs. It didn’t evaluate Biki’s benefits. That includes reducing car trips and carbon emissions in town, while helping riders improve health and save money.
Nonetheless, it’s been open season on Biki ever since the audit was released.
A Honolulu Star-Advertiser story stated plainly that the bike-share program “has not benefited the city.” A Civil Beat column on the audit featured resident fears that the Biki bikes threaten kupuna (seniors) and keiki (children) when riders bike through parks, and it raised concerns over a new docking station at a nearby Diamond Head neighborhood park.
The bike-share is run via a unique public-private partnership and it gets exclusive, free use of city property for its stations. It received an initial $2 million in startup funds from the state and county. The bikes have displaced some 44 metered parking stalls around the city, according to the audit.
Those are the clear costs. What’s harder to gauge, however, are all the cars taken off the road, the emissions eliminated, the calories burned — and whether that all amounts to a worthwhile return on investment. Those quality of life benefits can be trickier to quantify partly because bike-share programs are still relatively new.
“This is evolving,” said Todd Boulanger, executive director of Bikeshare Hawaii, the nonprofit that oversees Biki.
“Some of the early reporting just reported that figure and didn’t really go into detail,” he said, referring to the $460,000. “It’s a more involved discussion. If there wasn’t great value in Biki it wouldn’t be used.”
Biki has so far accounted for some 3.7 million rides in town, according to Boulanger. Most of those rides replaced a short car trip, but exactly how many trips is hard to say, he added.
Whatever the total, Biki rides translate to fewer drivers competing for road space and parking spots in urban Honolulu, even as some residents get upset at the parking spaces they see vanish near homes and offices to make way for Biki docking stations.
Something Biki won’t solve is the woeful commute to and from the west side. The island’s beleaguered, multibillion-dollar rail project is supposed to help address that problem, even if it doesn’t solve it altogether.
Nonetheless, the freed-up road and curb space from Biki trips benefits residents who live outside of Honolulu once they do make it into town, Boulanger said. It’s not just the townies or the Biki users who benefit. Still, there’s no hard data to measure that effect besides the total ride count.
Replacing car trips with Biki rides is unquestionably safer for pedestrians, too. Some 76 pedestrians have been struck and killed by motor vehicles on Oahu since 2017, the year Biki launched. That compares to just three bicycle-on-pedestrian fatalities on Oahu going back to 1999, according to state Department of Health records.
A Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman said the department didn’t know of any Biki-on-pedestrian fatalities. So while residents may be concerned about the dangers of collisions with bicycles, it’s clearly not the island’s most pressing traffic-safety concern.
Using an online tool from the EPA, Bikeshare Hawaii also calculated that Biki usage has removed some 3.3 million pounds of carbon from the atmosphere. Yet there’s still not a consensus method among bike-share programs for how to calculate that environmental benefit.
“Many cities are rolling out bike share programs. However, few studies have evaluated how bike share systems are used to quantify their sustainability impacts,” a recent study in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling states. (It then proposes a complex model for calculating how much emissions are reduced by a given bike-share.)
Some 58% of Biki members surveyed reported saving money using the bike-share instead of driving, according to Bikeshare Hawaii. Those savings averaged $900 a year, the nonprofit reported.
Nearly 30% reported losing weight. Some 55% said they had discovered a restaurant, retail outlet, or other business while using Biki. The nonprofit further estimates some 110 million calories were burned on the bikes in 2019.
None of those benefits preclude city leaders from ensuring that taxpayers are getting a fair deal from the bike-share program. It’s why the City Council asked for the auditor to examine the city’s agreement with the two entities that manage Biki: Bikeshare Hawaii and the for-profit company Secure Bike Share.
Currently, Secure Bike Share receives all the revenue, and the city doesn’t receive any of it under its deal. Bikeshare Hawaii, the private nonprofit established by various local public and private entities to launch a bike-share program, does have a deal to receive revenue once Secure Bike Share turns a profit.
That profit hasn’t materialized yet, according to Boulanger, even though Biki generated more than $5.6 million in fare revenue during its first three years. Secure Bike Share is still paying off a $5 million startup loan.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the company was expecting to pay off that loan within Biki’s first 10 years of operation, Boulanger said.
Since then, Biki has lost about half its rides and more than half of its revenue, Boulanger said. It’s now going to take longer for Secure Bike Share to pay off its loan and turn a profit, he said, although he didn’t give an estimate.
“Bikeshare Hawaii’s contract with the city (DTS) can be amended if both sides agree,” Boulanger said in a follow-up email, responding to calls that Biki change the terms so that they’re more favorable to the city. That contract comes up for review in 2022 when its first of two five-year periods ends.
During a September 2019 hearing on Biki, some residents urged the City Council not to act precipitously when it considered a resolution urging that Biki compensate the city for the public space it uses.
“Biki is already an instrumental part of the transportation system, of the infrastructure of the city,” Honolulu resident Lisa Bravender testified in 2019. “Making them pay additional fees would cause them to retract their system and not allow for larger ridership.”
Those Biki supporters further asked the city’s leaders to view the bike-share more as an essential public service.
That view arguably holds even more weight today, now that Honolulu rail might not make it to Ala Moana until 2028 at the very earliest. This crowded city on a small island will need all the mobility options it can get.
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