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SF rental bike shortage ends despite lawsuits, acrimony

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SFMTA permits new Lyft bikes, even as the ride-hailing company sues the city

A black and pink e-bike with the Lyft logo.
Lyft’s nw “hybrid” bike, now deploying in SF.
Courtesy Lyft

On Thursday, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) issued permits that allow Lyft to push new “hybrid” rental bikes onto city streets, even as the two are locked in a lawsuit over who has the rights to the bike market in SF.

In recent months, the city suffered a paucity of rental bikes, as the supply of Lyft e-bikes—formerly known as Ford GoBikes (Ford Motor Company sponsored the bike program but was otherwise uninvolved) and now branded Bay Wheels—dwindled citywide, initially because of a recall over brakes.

The company had planned to release its new hybrid e-bikes in June, but Lyft is presently suing San Francisco, alleging that the city went back on its exclusivity deal with the ride-hailing company.

The impasse broke this week with SFMTA announcing an “interim permit” so that “Lyft can immediately work to restore Bay Wheels service levels through the deployment of new e-bikes.”

According to the transit agency:

The decision to issue an interim permit follows a court proceeding regarding stationless e-bikes in San Francisco. In particular, last week, the San Francisco Superior Court temporarily stopped the SFMTA from issuing stationless bike share permits to operators other than Lyft, without providing Lyft the first opportunity to submit a proposal—a process known as “Right of First Offer” in the contract between the city and Lyft. This process may take months, but the system needs to work for the public as soon as possible.

Lyft filed suit in June after SFMTA announced plans to add 11,000 new vehicles to its bikeshare program.

According to the company’s complaint, SF previously promised Lyft an exclusivity deal for rental bikes in the city. “San Francisco is now reneging on its contractual obligations [...] by threatening to implement a multi-vendor bike share system,” according to Lyft lawyers.

The city maintains that it only promised to give Lyft first dibs on docked bikes citywide and argues that stationless bikes, like the red JUMP bikes peddled by Lyft competitor Uber, are a different game entirely.

The suit will roll on, but at least the rental bike shortage will come to an end. Lyft dubs its new bikes hybrids because they can work as dockless bikes (riders can simply lock them to any bike rack) or compatibly with the existing docking stations.

The company plans to maintain the old blue bikes in the Bay Area as well, according to the Lyft blog. Via email, Lyft says it will add devices to Pacific Heights, the Inner Richmond, and the Inner Sunset to its SF service area.

SFMTA says Lyft can add up to 1,900 of the new bikes to SF streets. The city is also extending Uber’s permit for JUMP bikes, but the number of bikes remains the same.

Lyft’s new bikes have been in San Jose since June. Bay Wheels also launched in Oakland last week.