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Electric bike-share system en route for SMART stations in Sonoma and Marin counties

A new regional bike-sharing program centered around the SMART rail system could launch this year after Sonoma County transportation officials approved the multiyear, all-electric bicycle pilot project on Monday.

The program will offer a fleet of 300 e-bikes near Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit stations along the current 45-mile line, from north of Santa Rosa to Larkspur. Additional pickup and drop-off points will be established at other popular locations in the cities up and down the rail corridor.

The deal that will see teal-colored, pedal-assisted bicycles that go up to 20 mph zipping around city streets and paths is with South Carolina-based Gotcha Mobility, and was finalized last week ahead of Monday’s vote by the Sonoma County Transportation Authority’s board. The agreement, which is funded through an $826,000 regional grant awarded in late 2017, is for three years, with an option to expand the pilot by 50 bikes and another two years if the program catches on with area commuters.

“The idea is to put some grant funding toward starting the system, and after the pilot period to have enough revenue in sponsorship and user fee memberships to continue the system,” said Dana Turréy, senior planner with the transportation authority. “We’re excited to get started in the planning process and move this forward. I would like it to happen this year, but really can’t make a real determination on that.”

The bike-share program in partnership with Marin County’s transportation authority was originally slated to begin by this spring but ran into delays as proposals from eight vendors were vetted and a deal was struck.

Other finalists included Zagster, which operates a 40-bike docked system in Healdsburg as the North Bay’s only public bike-share to date, and HOPR, which started a 250-bike dockless system in Fremont in August.

Gotcha offers a hybrid docking system that encourages riders to return bikes to designated locations — either fixed racks or “virtual hubs,” depending on the location — with a cheaper rate. But with a built-in lock, users can also end their ride where it suits their needs and pay a little extra.

Riders, who must be 18 or older, will use a smartphone application tied to their credit card to rent bikes, or link their account to the Bay Area’s Clipper card system, which SMART also uses to collect fares. Users can choose a pay-as-you-go option, or sign up for a monthly membership, though the details are still being finalized, Turréy said.

A low-income rate for people who qualify also will be available.

“Our goal is to provide an affordable and convenient solution for first/last mile commuters at SMART rail stations (that) reduces the use of single-occupancy cars,” Gotcha CEO Sean Flood said in a statement.

Gotcha, which launched in 2009 at several college campuses throughout the country, today operates in more than 40 cities across 22 states. The company next plans to expand to California with the program in the North Bay, as well as a 250 e-bike, 25-hub system in the East Bay city of Richmond and another in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley.

SMART’s ridership data shows that about 10% of passengers have brought a bicycle aboard since service began in August 2017. The rail agency’s hope is the new program will increase daily ridership by helping solve the challenge of people getting to and from their final destination after stepping off the train.

Healdsburg Councilman Joe Naujokas, who is a member of the SMART board, said he has witnessed how the Zagster system has served his city by lessening reliance on motor vehicles to get around, and addressing the issue of limited parking around Healdsburg’s downtown plaza. Beyond the obvious benefits of also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and offering people some exercise, bike-share systems contribute to communities in other ways, too, he said.

“It’s a kind of transportation that encourages human interactivity,” said Naujokas, also a member of Sonoma County’s transportation authority board. “From all kinds of different angles, getting out of the car and reducing our dependence on cars will have a hugely positive impact on our quality of life. To me, the bike-share program — particularly the e-bike-share — expands that, and is a really effective way of doing that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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