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Dockless Bike Shares Are Here. Are Cities Ready for Them?

A new wave of companies could disrupt the way city bike-share programs are run.

A Mobike on a streetcorner in China.
Mobike is a China-based international bike-share company, which has expanded into the Washington, D.C., metro region.
A new kind of bike share has popped up in many U.S. cities in recent months, and it’s most noticeable for what it’s missing: a designated place to park the bikes.

The new “dockless” bike shares have arrived in places like Seattle, Dallas and Washington, D.C., since the summer. They’re run by private companies like LimeBike, MoBike and Spin. Riders locate and unlock the bikes using their mobile phones and they can leave them, well, almost anywhere. The bikes have kickstands and lock themselves, so most don’t even have to be next to a pole, rack or fence to attach them to.

That means hundreds of new bicycles have hit the streets in these cities in recent weeks. With no set parking spaces or docking stations, many residents worry that the bicycles are further cluttering already crowded sidewalks. But others are excited for a new transportation option, especially because the new services tend to be cheaper and more flexible than the dock-based systems that have proliferated throughout the country over the last seven years.

The dockless bike share is such a new concept that cities aren’t quite sure what to make of it.

Some cities, including New York, fought the upstart companies from setting up business there after they had initially used Uber-style tactics to launch without consulting city officials. But the companies have changed their tune lately, opting to work with local officials rather than circumventing them. That helped them get off the ground in a handful of cities, but it's still unclear whether their new approach will be enough for them to win over New York and other cities that have fought them previously.

Two of the cities where dockless bike-share companies now operate have welcomed the new companies as a solution to an existing transportation gap. Seattle, for example, was left without any bike-share program after the city took over the beleaguered Pronto and shut it down in March. Dallas is one of the few major cities that never had one, and private efforts to raise money to launch one have fallen flat.

The most competitive testing ground right now is Washington, D.C., where four different dockless companies have launched in recent weeks and another competitor is expected to start operations soon.

The city does already have its own robust bike share program; in fact, Capital Bikeshare was the first citywide program in the U.S. when it launched seven years ago. But unlike in some other cities, where private companies may run the bike program with the hopes of turning a profit, D.C.'s bike share program is wholly owned and operated by the city. So the fact that the new dockless companies might cut into Capital Bikeshare's business isn't a major concern.

So how did D.C. become ground zero for dockless?

One reason is that regulators have kept an open mind about the new services.The district wanted to let the new companies in, but it wasn't sure how best to regulate them, says Sam Zimbabwe, the chief project delivery officer for the D.C. transportation department. So it decided to allow these five companies to operate in the city on a trial basis for about six months. That will give officials enough information, Zimbabwe says, to see what regulations are needed.

“The baseline for us [is that these companies] share data as much as possible with us, so we that can make more informed transportation decisions more broadly. That’s the framework for our permit terms and conditions for this demonstration period,” Zimbabwe says. “We can get into more detail through legislation or regulation down the line.”

While the new technology will compete with the city's existing program, it could also complement it in different ways, Zimbabwe says. Dockless bike shares may prove to be more popular with, say, college students, while the traditional service is more popular for tourists on the National Mall. It’s even possible that Capital Bikeshare could roll out its own dockless service down the line, if customers demand it. For now, though, the district will continue to expand its existing service by adding docks and bikes throughout the city.

Zimbabwe says his top concern is how the new bike shares will affect pedestrians. He wants to make sure that riders don’t block sidewalks when they park. So far, most riders have parked their bikes near existing bike racks, signs, parking meters or out of the main paths of travel. (Although there have been notable exceptions.)

Washington is limiting the number of bikes each vendor can bring in, at least initially, to 400 each. If all the companies bring the maximum number of bikes, it would add 2,000 bikes to the city, on top of the 2,500 Capital Bikeshare bikes already here.

The cap could prevent some of the problems that dockless bike shares have caused in other cities, particularly in China, where dockless companies have put hundreds of thousands of bikes on the street in several cities. That sort of scale is unlikely in the U.S., but too many bikes on the street could still lead to clutter, theft, vandalism and abandoned bikes.

In April, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) – a group that often promotes alternative modes of transportation – warned that unregulated bike shares could actually hamper transportation in cities.

The group particularly took aim at “rogue” bike shares, or companies that launched services without consulting city officials. They “have launched, uninvited, in U.S. cities with flimsy equipment and limited or no public notification, posing significant safety risks to the public and fully divorced from larger transportation planning and municipal needs,” NACTO said.

Kate Fillin-Yeh, NACTO’s strategy director and a former New York City official who designed and rolled out its Citi Bike program, now says she is pleased that the bike share companies have decided to work with city agencies rather than going around them.

That said, she cautions, cities still need a lot more time and data to see the pros and cons of the new services. Cities need to know how many trips are being taken, who’s taking them, where they’re going and when they’re traveling. That will help cities know whether the services are really helping residents get to work and do errands, or if they’re being used by a smaller group of residents or visitors.

Killin-Yeh is also concerned about how much the new bike share companies charge their customers. In Washington, for example, many of the new companies charge $1 per ride, but few have any volume discounts. That means it could cost $40 a month to commute with one of the new services, or nearly $500 a year – far more than the $80 annual membership for Capital Bikeshare.

It’s possible the new companies could offer more transportation options to residents in previously underserved areas, since they don't require any infrastructure to set up. But that’s no guarantee, Killin-Yeh says.

“Dockless systems are really great on the user end for dropping off a bike. You get where you’re going and you drop the bike. They’re not necessarily reliable or user-friendly on the pickup end,” she says.

Users need a mobile phone to use most of them, often with several apps to track down the location of bikes from several different providers. The bikes could be scattered, or the closest one could be several blocks away.

It can make the whole system unreliable, Killlin-Yeh says.

“It’s more of a situation where a bike could be there. There could be a bikeshare bike there once a week, but that’s not transportation. It’s not a reliable system, and that’s not an equitable system. That’s not something anyone could rely on to get to work.“

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