Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday May 23, 2020
Should Hamilton taxpayers ride to the rescue of SoBi bike share network?
Thousands of people have signed a petition calling on the city to save Hamilton’s imperiled bike share network — but councillors are divided over whether local taxpayers should ride to the rescue.
The Uber-owned operator of SoBi Hamilton shocked the city Friday by announcing it will shut down local bike share operations June 1 because of pandemic challenges, despite a recent contract renewal.
The two-wheeled emergency hit just as the city prepares to unveil a pandemic “mobility plan” expected to highlight cycling as a safe, affordable alternative as Hamilton emerges from COVID-19 lockdown.
Some council members have already vowed to fight to preserve the program. “We’re going to find a way,” said Mayor Fred Eisenberger during a COVID-19 news conference.
“We WILL find a way to keep our bike share program operating,” added Ward 3 Coun. Nrinder Nann on Twitter in response to resident questions. “It is too critical a link in our transportation network.”
But not everyone believes that support should extend to a municipal takeover or public subsidy.
Planning general manager Jason Thorne said Wednesday SoBi Hamilton did not make a profit and bike share models in other cities commonly rely on subsidies. It could cost $700,000 a year for the city or another operator to run the system.
“I’m not on for taxpayer money being used,” said Flamborough Coun. Judi Partridge. “It is successful, it has been great, people have been riding more and it’s healthy for our city — but is it sustainable?”
Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla and Ward 14 Coun. Terry Whitehead also both argued public money should be “off the table” when it comes to bike share rescue efforts. Merulla emphasized the city faces a $60-million-plus pandemic deficit and the economy is in “depression mode.”
He said cash-strapped Hamilton cannot afford to spend on a bike share program that is “not a city-wide network” and any solution should come from a private or nonprofit venture. While the city has explored expansion opportunities for SoBi, the current service area is mostly limited to Dundas and the lower city up until Ottawa Street.
A survey of 420 SoBi members by CivicPlan suggests many live in the service area — but others are scattered throughout the city including on the Mountain, in Glanbrook and Stoney Creek. About 40 per cent reported using SoBi to commute to work, including using the bikes to connect to GO Transit or the local bus service.
A cycling equity program, the Everybody Rides Initiative, also provides subsidized SoBi passes to 500 low-income residents. Social service providers like shelters also have group passes available to help clients get around. (Hamilton Spectator)