Connecting state and local government leaders

Dockless Bike Share Is Not a Sign of the Apocalypse

A dockless LimeBike stands next to a Capital Bikeshare docking station near Union Station in Washington, D.C.

A dockless LimeBike stands next to a Capital Bikeshare docking station near Union Station in Washington, D.C. Mitch Herckis / Route Fifty


Connecting state and local government leaders

With the new technology all but inevitable, cities of all sizes are scrambling to build the right policies and social norms.

 Lots of ink has been spilled on so-called “dockless” bike shares. In this sign of the end-times, bicycles are not returned to docks or kiosks in specific locations, but rather ridden to wherever the individual on the bike wants to go and left—preferably in a courteous manner that does not block sidewalks or make people generally miserable.

Of course, that last part is key. In Washington, D.C., local blogs feature pictures of a bike left on the roof of a parked vehicle, to a dockless bike deemed suspicious by Secret Service, to some abandoned indoors or just artfully parked.

Seattle, in very Seattle fashion, also has some particularly unique examples of bikes parked in odd places.

Putting aside rude riders and pranks—as well as breathless articles that see these new bicycles as modern iron horsemen of the urban apocalypse tearing asunder idyllic cityscapes—cities of all sizes are finding ways to make a dockless approach work for them.

In some smaller cities, like South Bend, Indiana, it’s an opportunity that would not exist otherwise. “We’ve been talking about bike share for years—I’ve always wanted to do it,” South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg told Route Fifty in August, just over a month after dockless bicycles hit the streets there. For South Bend, the dockless bike share “takes care of one of the most expensive problems,” which is the placement of docking stations.

Buttigieg also believes the private bike share opens opportunities on multiple other fronts—namely securing the data, which he has negotiated with the company LimeBike. He hopes to use the data to identify commuting patterns and put in appropriate bicycle infrastructure, but also supporting residents in a variety of ways, including building a healthy lifestyle.

“We don’t have a public health apparatus—we do have a public health function, but it’s a bank shot,” Buttigieg explained. That means looking at “other factors outside the clinical environment that tend to help determine your health,” whether it’s building trails or increasing bike ridership.

Buttigieg also mentioned the issue that many midsize cities run up against with public transit of the how citizens complete what’s known as the “last mile,” the gap between transit stops and where they need to go. Buttigieg described South Bend’s situation as “big enough to have a public transit system, but not big enough to have a very dense one with a lot of frequency and a lot of routes.” That makes these bikes an opportunity to fill a needed gap.

“I’m hearing anecdotes about people using this as a way to get to work, and I’ll be really interested to see as we dig into the data how that proves out, because if so … this is not only something neat to have and something that encourages healthier lifestyles, but potentially something that’s opening up an economic opportunity for people, too,” he explained.

In Seattle, a city seven times as large as South Bend, dockless bicycles filled a gap after the city’s dock-based system, Pronto, failed earlier this year. Seattle has a much more diverse dockless bikeshare situation than South Bend, with multiple companies in the market. However, it took a careful approach, building the correct ordinances and permitting process, to allow a slow introduction of dockless bike shares across the city. The new entries have generally gotten solid reviews as they’ve come online over the summer.

Atlanta, whose population is parked neatly in between South Bend and Seattle, placed its bet not solely on a fully docked or dockless bike share system when it launched its Relay bike share system just over a year ago. Relay allows for bikes to be left at docks for one rate, or elsewhere for an additional fee of two dollars. Riders also receive an additional $1 credit for every undocked bike they return to a station.

In a conversation with Route Fifty, Atlanta’s chief bicycle officer, Becky Katz, called it a “dock-asterisk” system.

“I think having the stations creates a reliability within the system for users,” Katz said. She believes there is an assurance in knowing where a dock is and not having to check your phone, “but there’s also this wonderful flexibility in our system... you are welcome to pay for the convenience of not going to a station.”

“The city of Atlanta recognized—given our land use, varying densities, and single-family homes—that having the most flexible system possible would be a positive for our city,” Katz explained, mirroring the sentiment of Buttigieg regarding South Bend. Over a three-month period, a little less than 10 percent of Relay’s rides were not returned to a dock.

Private bike share companies are also welcome—but they must conform to Atlanta’s relatively high regulatory bar, which requires at least 500 bikes and 50 stations or drop-off zones that are distributed equitably around town. To date, no private company beyond the current one sanctioned by Atlanta has entered the market successfully.

Atlanta’s approach could end up being a model for other docked bike systems that are considering a more flexible model but are concerned about dockless bicycles overwhelming their infrastructure. New York City’s Citi Bike program, for instance, stated an intent to explore dockless. Perhaps not coincidentally, the announcement came shortly after the dockless bike share company Spin received a cease and desist after dropping some bikes in Queens without a permit.

In a completely different model, Minneapolis’ Nice Ride, a nonprofit that since 2010 has operated one of the oldest bike shares in the country, is trying to get ahead of the curve and reinvent the city’s approach.

Nice Ride has suggested giving up its role in docked bike share services altogether. Instead, it proposes becoming a convening body to manage the private operators on behalf of the public entities in the region and look at opportunities to ensure equity and efficient service.

Minneapolis’ model could quell some of the fears that exist about how these dockless bicycles will be maintained over time, not to mention fare in more inclement weather—or, as it is called in Minneapolis, winter. In the end, it will be a race to build the social norms and guidelines that create the right policy environment. Many cities have started in earnest, but how those will prove out over time is anyone’s guess.

Andrew Savage, a vice president with LimeBike, which operates in several cities including South Bend, Washington, D.C., and Seattle, told Route Fifty, “our approach is very proactive in that we are looking to engage the city in a conversation about how might be able can serve the community.”

Savage made it clear, however, he thinks the dockless system is a logical next step in the bike share evolution, claiming it “fits with what people’s expectations are from a service economy perspective where they want on-demand services and a level of convenience.”

Katz believes it will be a process to find the right balance. “Cities generally have put a lot of time and thought and money and support into the systems they have, which is often why they have been successful—and that amount of effort is going to be needed to ensure that private operations and dockless systems are successful in cities.”

“Private operators need to be more upfront and start to work closely with cities, and cities need to be open-minded and work with the operators,” Katz said. “We really are entering a new phase and an exciting time in bike share where the technology has changed.”

When it comes to social norms, Buttigieg believes they will develop in time. “With any new technology or any new development in lifestyle it takes a little while for the etiquette to catch up,” he said. “By and large, to be honest, I’ve been very impressed with how few problems we’ve had.”

Mitch Herckis is Senior Director of Programs for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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