MetroBike Gears Up for Revamp After Major Outage
Austin’s bike share program shut down completely during SXSW
MetroBike, Austin's public bikeshare system, was forced to shut down service between March 17 and 19 due to a software issue. The outage occurred during the peak of South by Southwest – their busiest week of the year – raising questions about the service's reliability under pressure.
A statement from representatives of Austin Transportation, Bike Share of Austin, and CapMetro said that software glitches caused MetroBikes to "not be properly checked in at the end of a session, resulting in improper billing," and bikes were rendered "unrentable because the system [could] not recognize them as returned and ready to use." The number of glitches became too challenging for staff to mitigate as demand during SXSW surged, they said, driving staff to take the system offline.
MetroBike was eventually able to resume a "limited degree" of service, but the system is still not yet in its optimal working condition, according to the spokespeople. It's fixable, but the timing could make that fix expensive, said Hill Abell, a member of the Bike Share of Austin Board of Directors and longtime leader of Bike Austin. "CapMetro is ready to spend several million dollars on buying more equipment, and if they can't get this problem fixed in pretty short order, the city is going to require the system to go out and get RFPs [requests for proposal] for potentially another vendor. That would be really painful ... because that's setting up brand-new systems, docks and everything else, plus it would be a lot more money."
MetroBike operations involve several organizations: Austin Transportation owns the system, CapMetro oversees its design and planning, and Bike Share of Austin operates the system. The software system at the center of the operation is a product of B-Cycle, a division of Trek. The bikeshare system – originally called Austin B-Cycle – went through a transition back in 2020, when the city of Austin partnered with CapMetro to integrate the program into the Capital Metro transit system, prompting the name change to "MetroBike." That "was when we really started to get traction," Abell said. "Now that Capital Metro has taken over the management of the system – it's the same people at B-Cycle running the system – but they're giving them so many more resources to work with, and it's made a world of difference." Trek has put "literally hundreds of millions of dollars" into developing the software system for the various markets they're in, Abell noted. "But unfortunately they learned a hard lesson about how stressing a software system can cause unintended consequences," he said.
Even with the glitches, MetroBike has seen increased demand throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They have about 800 bikes and e-bikes in operation with 78 stations. And it's e-bikes that are driving the demand, generating "about four to five times the number of trips as manual bikes," the PIOs said. "The pedal-assist bikes are just absolutely phenomenal," Abell added, "and such a game-changer for people who are not cyclists and for people who just want to use them as a transportation tool ... and it's such a good value – you can get an annual pass for the cost of two or three Uber rides halfway across town."
A MetroBike pedal-assist bike is more expensive to maintain and costs almost 2.5 times as much as one of their normal bicycles, Hill noted. "But the quality is phenomenal, they're super sturdy and Trek has done a really good job in creating the bicycles," he said. "Where the real challenge has been is the software for the system."
Continuing to expand MetroBike helps the city with its Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, which aims to increase transportation affordability and provide more ways to get around the city safely, Abell said. "Once the whole system is built out and people see the connectivity that's available to them, it's going to see enormous usage."