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Bike-share company working out kinks in Claremont market

Those yellow bikes you see around town might soon have a larger presence.

Claremont is looking into a pilot program with Ofo bikes, following apparent success at Pomona College. 

Ofo, a private bike-share company known for their yellow bikes, have become a ubiquitous presence in Claremont after the Beijing-based company entered into a pilot program with Pomona College in February.

At last week’s Traffic and Transportation Commission meeting, City Engineer Frank Lopez noted that the city had been looking at bike-share programs since 2016, but things accelerated with the Pomona College deal.

“We were made aware, but it was short notice,” Mr. Lopez said. “We were still interviewing companies that we were considering.”

Unlike bike-share programs such as MetroBike, which have designated docking areas around Los Angeles, Ofo is completely dockless, meaning riders can pick up a bike and drop it off anywhere in the city. Users download an app on their phone, which allows them to locate bikes in a given area and pay by the hour.

This creates equitable distribution throughout Claremont, meaning those without other means of transportation can more easily find a bike nearby, but it can also lead to bike clutter around town, Mr. Lopez said.

Under the pilot program, an Ofo employee would drive around town in a van, picking up wayward bikes and taking them to designated “bike corrals,” or pre-planned spots where bikes will originate.

Those corrals have been proposed in spots all throughout the city, from as far north as Cahuilla Park to as far south as Wheeler Park. The city is looking at a more concentrated area, Mr. Lopez noted, spanning from Foothill Boulevard in the north, Claremont Boulevard in the east, Arrow Highway in the south and Mountain and Cambridge in the west.

TTC commissioner Jennifer Stark was in favor of a larger area for the bikes, and took issue with the strict parameters suggested by the city. The pilot plan should include people near the Vons shopping center to the north and Vista del Valle Elementary to the south, she said.

“I feel like if we’re going to do this pilot, it should include all of Claremont,” she said.

Dockless bikes also provide the city a financial benefit, and Mr. Lopez said that bringing in private companies like Ofo, Urbncyclr, LimeBike or Mobike would come at little to no cost to Claremont in terms of implementation and annual maintenance.

Even with a grant to the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments to install MetroBike docks, the cost was too prohibitive, Mr. Lopez said.

“I think we resisted a little bit the docking systems because we discovered what the costs would be,” he told the commission last Thursday.

Ofo would need to comply with several rules under the proposed ordinance, including implementing an educational component, responding to complaints or questions in a timely manner, the bike fleet never exceeding 100 bikes, appropriate bike parking and implementation of a fine system for users who don’t comply with the program rules, among other conditions.

Corralling bikes to designated areas would be an important part of the program as a means to decreasing bike clutter, Mr. Lopez said.

“We just don’t want them to be unsafe or to block vehicle traffic or pedestrians,” he said.

A cursory look at Ofo’s Facebook page yields multiple complaints about bike clutter, including comments about bikes being abandoned on private property for weeks. Mr. Lopez told the commission wayward bikes would not be misplaced for more than two days.

Pomona College recently concluded a study on Ofo bike usage, which was not made available to the city by the time of the TTC meeting, Mr. Lopez said.

But Pomona College Assistant Director of Sustainability Alexis Reyes spoke during public comment touting its benefits.

According to Ms. Reyes, more than 3,200 riders at the Colleges are signed up, which translates to 45,000 rides since mid-February. More than 22,000 miles have been biked, which Ms. Reyes says translates to 9,400 pounds of carbon dioxide saved, 196 trees planted and 1.2 million calories burned.

She also said Ofo has opened up Claremont to students who would otherwise not have access to visit parts of the city outside the Colleges. Some major travel locations, Ms. Reyes noted, include Sprouts, Target and Super King.

“Given that many of [the students] don’t have cars, and Uber and Lyft are expensive and you don’t always know another student who has a car, having access to food and recreation is very important,” she said.

Mr. Lopez said Pomona College is extending its program with Ofo for the upcoming school year.

Commission chair Zach Courser, who was away on a work trip and teleconferenced into the meeting from Washington, DC, had questions about Ofo as a company, and remarked that its financial stability, which is entirely based on venture capital, was “shaky.”

Commissioner Julie Medero agreed, and added concerns about Ofo laying off 70 percent of its workforce in the US.

Mr. Courser proposed looking further into Ofo, and other bike-share companies, and cautioned that if things go south with Ofo during the pilot program, Claremonters would be turned off to the entire idea of bike-sharing.

“We want to do everything we can to make sure that with a smooth rollout, people will feel like this is a positive thing for our community,” he said.

There has been apparent confusion with whether or not Ofo is planning to stay in town. Some Claremont app users received an email on July 27 that “Ofo is leaving.” The message went on to say that, after much consideration, “it’s with great sadness that we’ll be leaving your town over the next week.”

An Ofo representative said the company is not leaving Claremont, and those who got the message either received it through a glitch or they were at one point a registered user in a city where Ofo is leaving.

Mr. Lopez confirmed that Ofo has assured city officials it does not plan to leave Claremont.

The commission approved a motion to include comments about Ofo as a company and more information about Pomona College’s pilot program in the upcoming presentation to the city council.

The council will look at the proposed ordinance at its September 11 meeting.

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com