Holy Spokes launched in Charleston in 2014 | Credit: Sam Spence

City has three extra months to find next operator

Charleston officials narrowed down the next potential operators to the city’s bike-share program Wednesday, the final two being a startup and one of the world’s largest bike and scooter share companies.

The City of Charleston put out a request for proposals (RFP) over the summer to operate the city’s bike share program, as the existing agreement with Gotcha nears its end in November. With time ticking, a three-month extension was added to that contract to extend the current program’s operation in Charleston until February, Charleston’s new transportation director Robbie Somerville told the City Paper.

Six companies submitted bids by the August deadline, including Bolt, the Florida company that acquired Gotcha last year. In the end, Blue Duck Express, Inc. and Neutron Holdings, the parent company of Lime, will be the two companies invited to share plans with the city’s selection committee in-person, Somerville said Thursday.

The bike-share market has shifted since 2014, when Gotcha launched Holy Spokes in Charleston. Electric scooters rose in popularity nationwide, driven by venture funding-backed startups. After attempting to rapidly scale-up operations by dropping scooters in cities unannounced, some cities, like Charleston, reacted by banning them altogether.

The scooter trend seems to have cooled a bit, partially because easy-to-ride e-bikes — electric bikes and electric-assist bikes — have also grown in popularity as technology advanced.

Somerville said the companies will be scheduled to present plans in Charleston in the coming weeks, with the intent of selecting a partner to take over the program in 2022. The committee will primarily be evaluating options for a bike program, since scooters remain banned in Charleston, he said.

“The committee went through and wanted to shortlist it and get [the companies] in front of them and check out the bikes,” Somerville said.

The scope of Charleston’s program included a minimum of 500 bikes starting in the downtown area, with the possibility of expanding in West Ashley, Daniel Island and James Island. E-bikes that go less than 20 miles per hour would be considered, according to the city’s RFP. Providers would also be required to maintain an app-based system that allows users to check out bikes, similar to how Holy Spokes currently operates.

San Antonio-based Blue Duck, which recently launched in Spartanburg, offers shared bikes and scooters. The Spartanburg program is the state’s first scooter-share program, according to a Blue Duck press release.

Lime is one of the world’s largest players in the bike and scooter-sharing business, after starting out as Limebike and riding the scooter trend as it took hold. Lime took a hit during the pandemic — like everything else — leading Google and other investors to pump $150 million into the company last year. A big investment into bikes earlier this year reportedly has the company looking at expanding bikes into 50 cities worldwide, according to Streetsblog. Lime does not currently operate in South Carolina.

Neither company responded to requests for more information by the time of publication.

Elsewhere in S.C., B-Cycle operates in Greenville, while Bolt operates in Columbia.