Startup by former Alta executives scores Philadelphia bike share contract

Former Alta Bicycle Share president Alison Cohen, CEO
of Bicycle Transit Systems, spoke in Philadelphia Thursday.
(Photo: Bicycle Transit Systems)

A bike share operations startup founded by five ex-Alta Bicycle Share employees, three of them based in Portland, scored a major new contract Thursday.

Bicycle Transit Systems, which like its CEO Alison Cohen is headquartered in Philadelphia, will operate that city’s bike share system, which is scheduled to launch in spring 2015 with at least 600 stations.

It’s the first time in years that Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share, the market leader and operator of the popular systems in Washington DC, Boston, New York City and Chicago, has missed out on such a big new contract.

With 2.3 percent of residents’ commutes by bike, Philadelphia is sometimes cited as the bike-friendliest American city that’s larger than Portland.

Cohen, who joined Alta Bicycle Share in 2009 and served as its president, left the company in early 2013 and joined Toole Design Group, a major bike planning firm and rival of Portland-based Alta Planning and Design.

But Toole is not an investor in the new company, said Brodie Hylton, Bicycle Transit Systems’ vice president of marketing and business development.

“We’re bootstrapping a startup,” he said.

Brodie Hylton, now of Bicycle
Transit Systems, in 2013.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

The startup’s founding partners include Cohen; Hylton, Alta Bicycle Share’s former operations director; Peter Hoban, Alta’s former director of new launches; Chris Cassard, Alta’s former chief financial officer; and Danny Quarrell, Alta’s former director of technology. Hylton, Cassard and Quarrell all live in Portland, at least for now.

“We feel like we’re the five people who kind of did the most to help Alta become successful,” Hylton said in an interview Thursday.

In the latest sign that the public bike sharing industry may be maturing, or at least continuing to experiment, Bicycle Transit Systems’ business model is different from Alta’s: it doesn’t maintain exclusive contracts with equipment suppliers in the way that Alta has had a longstanding relationship with troubled Montreal-based vendor PBSC, also known as Bixi. In Philadelphia, Bicycle Transit Systems will operate equipment by B-Cycle, a Trek subsidiary that has long competed with Alta for bike sharing contracts but never operated the systems itself. (Instead, it’s handed off systems to independent bike sharing nonprofits.)

“I think for B-Cycle it’s a big win, too,” Hylton said. “This is their first opportunity outside of Denver to do a large-scale bike share program in a U.S. city.”

On Wednesday, the Alta-operated Bay Area Bike Share announced that it’s expanding to Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville, approximately doubling that system’s size.

Alta rapidly became a national leader in bike sharing but has had a rough couple of years, stemming in large part from its supplier PBSC’s decision to replace a flawed but functioning software system with what turned out to be a significantly less functional one. PBSC has since filed for bankruptcy protection and this month agreed to sell to a private buyer.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Alta’s flagship Citi Bike program, which uses the less functional software, had been operating in the red. Alta has signed a deal with PBSC’s former software supplier and plans to introduce a next-generation system in Seattle this fall. Here in Portland, Transportation Director Leah Treat used the word “pause” this week to describe the current status of the city’s long-delayed bicycle share system.

Hylton said there are ups and downs to Bicycle Transit Systems’ decision not to align itself, Alta-style, with a single supplier.

“The advantage to a single piece of equipment is the familiarity of the operator with that equipment,” he said. “The disadvantage is that … you’re not able to control the priorities of that partner.”

He hopes that Bicycle Transit Systems will succeed in part by keeping its mission simple. It’s not taking responsibility for recruiting system sponsors, a task Alta has taken on in Portland, for example.

“Right now we want to be experts in bike share operations,” he said. “So that’s it. We’re trying to reestablish ourselves and our new company’s brand as experts in bike share operations. We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.”

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