After five years of false starts, Iowa City’s bike-share program will (probably) start in April

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A bike rest on Clinton Street in downtown Iowa City. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Last year, the Iowa City Department of Transportation announced the city’s long-awaited bike-share program was scheduled to launch “in the fall” of 2019. That didn’t happen. Just like it didn’t happen in 2018, despite the department announcing it planned to start the program in the fall of that year.

In 2018, the problem that derailed the program happened as the city was finishing negotiations with the company it selected to run the bike-share. That company insisted on adding electric scooters to the deal, but the city wanted to start with bicycles alone before deciding whether to add scooters. The contract was never concluded.

In September 2019, a contract with a different company — Gotcha Mobility, based in Charleston, South Carolina — was approved by the city council. It was after the contract to provide a dockless system for electric-assist bikes was approved that the company told the city there was a problem.

“They attributed the delay to complications related to the recent implementation of tariffs on imported goods [from China],” Iowa City Transportation Director Darian Nagle-Gamm told Little Village in an email. “Due to the winter being a less than ideal time to launch, it was recently determined that the launch would be targeted for the spring.”

Nagle-Gamm said the current plan calls for the bike-share program to start in April.

A month before the city council’s Sept. 3 vote, Gotcha told the city of Moscow, Idaho — home to the University of Idaho — that difficulties caused by the Trump administration’s trade dispute with China would delay its planned August roll-out. Moscow’s bike-share is now scheduled to being in spring.

The decade-old company’s problems getting bikes and parts from China was noted in a story published by the Charleston’s Post-Courier 10 days after the city council authorized Nagle-Gann to conclude the deal with Gotcha.

Although Gotcha grew rapidly early in 2019, the Post-Courier said that by August the company was facing serious “questions about delayed launches and problems with its app. It also laid off about a quarter of its workforce after determining that some of its expansion plans would have to be pushed back to 2020.”

In July, the company’s roll-out of a bike-share program in Baton Rouge — the capital of Louisiana and site of Louisiana State University — faltered, when software problems meant bikes were unavailable in the area around LSU. In August, the company said it had to delay the start of its bike- and scooter-share program in Waco, Texas — home of Baylor University — “due to some unforeseen technical difficulties with our hardware and software.”

Also in August, Gotcha announced it was pulling out of two of its biggest markets, Nashville and Atlanta. The company cited heavy competition from larger bike- and scooter-share companies, as well as strict municipal regulations governing bikes and scooters, as their reasons for quitting the two cities.

In November, OjO Electric, an electric scooter-share company based in California, said it was buying Gotcha. The purchase price is reported to be $12 million.

“Under the agreement, $6 million will be paid upfront,” the Post-Courier reported in November. “The rest is contingent on Gotcha meeting certain milestones, which OjO did not specify.”

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There have been no changes to Iowa City’s forthcoming bike-share program other than its start date, Nagle-Gann told Little Village in December.

Plans call for the bike-share program to initially be concentrated downtown. It will cost $2 to unlock a bike, and then 10 cents per minute to use it. Gotcha’s system is designed to have people pay through its smartphone app, but the company will offer a cash option for people who don’t want to use the app.

Although the system is dockless, there will be designated parking areas for the bikes, and the smartphone app contains a GPS feature that will alert a user if they are leaving a bike outside the parking areas. The company can fine riders who leave a bike outside the designated area.

The city first planned to launch a bike-share program in 2015. But that year, the model for bike-sharing programs began to rapidly shift from a system with centralized kiosks where bikes are checked out and returned to a dockless one, modeled on programs that had recently launched in Beijing, Shanghai and other major Chinese cities.

Rather than invest in a kiosk-based system that might become instantly outdated, the city decided to delay the program and reassess its options.

By 2018, it was ready to commit to a dockless system. A dockless system is considered more flexible, allowing the distribution of bikes to be easily shifted to areas with the greatest demand. It also doesn’t have the same infrastructure costs associated with building and maintaining rental kiosks, Nagle-Gann explained to Little Village in September 2018. Expenses for the set-up and maintenance of the bike-share program will be borne by Gotcha, according to the agreement between the company and the city.

Cedar Rapids launched a bike-share program in May, and added electric scooters to the program in August. The Cedar Rapids program is run by VeoRide, a Chicago-based company.

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