Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Alta Bicycle Share, the nation's biggest bike-share company, just changed its name to Motivate. We chatted with CEO Jay Walder about his plans for the future.
Last fall, when a group of deep-pocketed investors took over Alta Bicycle Share—the troubled company that operates bike-share systems in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and several other major cities—one of the first moves they made was to bring on Jay Walder to head up the company.
Walder has a long track record running big municipal transportation systems, in New York, London, and Hong Kong. Along with the shift of headquarters from Portland, Oregon, to New York, the hire was a signal that things were going to be different for the bike-share pioneer, which had been struggling financially, going forward.
Wednesday, the company’s transformation took another step, with the announcement that it has a new name, Motivate. Walder says it's meant to convey energy, action, movement, and evolution. I talked with him by phone to find out what he’s been doing since he took over two and a half months ago and how the rebranded, refinanced company hopes to take bike-share into the future. The interview has been condensed and edited.
My first question is about how you’re developing business models. How are these systems getting funded? Are the funding models sustainable? What is new on the business side?
I think the question is well placed. There are any number of examples of good ideas that in the end didn’t have a sustainable financial foundation.
We’ve seen very different views for funding models for very different cities across the U.S. and even globally. At one end of the spectrum is New York, where we have a model in which we are not receiving any public support at all. We have to have a financially sustainable system on the basis of membership, on the basis of sponsorship, and on the basis of our ability to bring financing to the table.
What we’ve been learning out of that is how to leverage that experience in a way that is going to be very valuable for other cities as well. So we’re investing right now in developing the types of sponsorship relationships, potentially national or international sponsors for bike-share, in a way that I think is different than what’s gone on before.
We are also very much investing in business intelligence. One of the things that we’re learning out of the work we’ve done right now—and we have 16,000-odd bicycles on the streets—is how we are going to utilize that data to become much more effective as a company. Both in terms of the ability to present ourselves for sponsorship and other things of that nature, but also in the means and manner in which we’re able to understand what works for our customers. And then finally how we utilize that data to be able to drive at the cost structure of what’s there, so you become the most efficient and effective operator.
The other area you’ve talked about focusing on is the tech side. What is Motivate going to be doing in terms of tech to stay out in front?
We have brought on a vice president of technology, [Michael Frumin], my very first hire. What that’s reflective of for the Motivate company is that we have an active role in the technology. One of the things I would say about the predecessor company is that it saw itself as a taker of technology, as opposed to a developer and finder of technology. So we’re taking a much more active role in that process than has been done previously in looking at this.
Second, there are certain things that we’d like to do better. For example, one of the things people talk about in New York is we need better real-time information about what’s actually going on. Those things are important and we’re working on them right now, and we’re working to improve the reliability of the system and do other things of that nature. I think they’re a great start.
But the real question about technology is how are we imagining not just bike-share as it has been imagined before, but how are we imagining bike-share as it moves forward? I think bike-share has made a start down that path, but I don’t think it’s where it needs to be, and I think we can do that.
I view us as having a whole new set of things to come out of our apps, with the type of immediacy that we all think of when we have an app that we really like—that feeling that, wow, this does something I really like, it’s really there.
I’m also very much interested in how we think about the customer and break down the barriers to bike-share use. I want someone who uses bike-share in New York, when they get on a train and go down to Washington, D.C., and get off at Union Station, to be able to take bike-share right there. Our company is operating both of those systems, but even if you’re a registered user in New York, when you get down to D.C. you start from scratch.
We are looking at the ability of people to use a much more integrated platform across multiple networks.
What about the integration into the larger transportation system? Do you foresee a time when bike systems are not only integrated with each other, but also with municipal transportation systems?
I certainly do, and I think the ability to do this is frankly right around the corner. If you look at the RFP that’s out for the Los Angeles network right now, they are calling for integration with transit, as well as some of our other clients are looking at those questions.
One of my views about that, for example, is that the tool and the ability to do that probably should be focused most on the phone. I think that’s the way we should be thinking about this as opposed to the question of whether you can integrate a card. I think the smart phone could well be the platform and the way of bringing all these things together in ways that are truly creative.
Since you’ve had this job, when you go to cocktail parties and so forth, what do people complain to you about?
I don’t [go to cocktail parties anymore], I wish I could tell you! [laughs]
Actually, the comment that I get most is how much they love bike-share. There’s an underlying sense of, this is something I really, really like, and really, really want to see succeed.
What people are telling me is that this is different than other parts of the transportation network. The way they see bike-share as being flexible, as being individual, as being immediate, as being place-to-place rather than station-to-station—that fits in with the way they think about their life right now.
Inevitably, you also get some of the comments, depending on where you are, about some of the things that have been frustrating. These are things we know we need to address, and we’re working really hard to address them right now. But the interesting contrast is that, compared to some other places that I’ve worked, the conversation doesn’t start with the problem. Almost always, it starts with a comment about how much they love bike-share.