At Crossroads for Dockless Bikeshare, Seattle Chooses to Go Big

Lime bikes in Seattle.

Lime bikes in Seattle. Shutterstock


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Although Ofo is pulling its yellow bikes from the streets, leaders in the Emerald City have authorized an expansion of the popular privately operated dockless bikes.

SEATTLE — Sometime in the past week, a satirical poster was posted up on a utility pole at the corner of 24th Avenue NW and NW Market Street, near the historic heart of the Ballard neighborhood’s commercial district. It read: “MISSING: Yellow Bike” and featured an Ofo bike with a wire basket in front.

Spotted near 24th Avenue NW and NW Market Street in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. (Photo by Michael Grass / Route Fifty)

When Route Fifty noticed the missing-bike poster this past weekend, it was timely: the Chinese bikeshare company had announced a major retreat from the North American market. Initially, Ofo said it would continue its operations in Seattle, where dockless bikeshare has been booming since the city launched a pilot program for private operators a year ago.

But this week, Ofo made it official: It will pull its yellow bikes from Seattle, too, citing “exorbitant fees” that come with new city regulations.

But dockless bikeshare in Seattle isn’t going anywhere. On Monday, the Seattle City Council gave the green light to city transportation officials to significantly expand the program, where people can unlock a shared bicycle with an app and then park it at their destination, not at a designated docking station. As The Seattle Times reported, the unanimously approved ordinance will increase the number of dockless bikes to 20,000, operated by four private operators. Ofo’s competitor, Lime, has announced its intention to pursue the city’s new permitting process.

Seattle’s dockless bike program launched following the demise of Pronto, the city’s struggling bikeshare system that used fixed docking stations. It ceased operations in March 2017. Instead of bikeshare being confined to a network of docking stations primarily in or near Seattle’s downtown, dockless bikes can now be found in neighborhoods across the city, a change that is more equitable.

As SCC Insight, a blog that monitors Seattle City Council action, reported, the dockless bikeshare program moved forward with two amendments dealing with accessibility and parking enforcement:

Two amendments were adopted before it was passed into law:

  • one from Council member [Lisa] Herbold incents bike-share provider companies to provide adaptive vehicles and/or devices for people with disabilities, and requires a recommendation from SDOT back to the Council on permitting motorized bike-share vehicles including scooters.
  • one from Council member [Mike] O’Brien placed a limit on SDOT’s spending on the program until it delivers to the Council a written parking enforcement strategy that ensures that bike-share bicycles don’t block sidewalks and other locations in ways that cause problems for people with vision impairments or low-mobility issues.

Amid the benefits of bikeshare to help bridge some first- and last-mile gaps and give people a lower-cost alternative to driving a car for short trips, the parking of free-floating bikes has led to local grumbling on social media and neighborhood message boards. In a few cases, ire at the bikes also has led to acts of vandalism.

Although Seattle has guidelines on proper dockless bikeshare parking, it’s not necessarily uncommon to encounter an inconsiderately or improperly placed bicycle that’s adjacent to a curb cut, fire hydrant or otherwise obstructs the right of way for pedestrians and those with mobility impairments.    

A cluster of improperly parked dockless bikeshare bikes adjacent to a fire hydrant along Shishole Avenue in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood (Photo by Michael Grass / Route Fifty)

Encouraging Good Parking Behavior

While dockless bikeshare is incredibly popular in Seattle, the city hopes to reduce improper bikeshare parking through yet-to-be-specified enforcement actions and planners are studying ways to encourage good behavior.

As Crosscut reported on July 20 when the city was finalizing its new permitting and program rules ahead of this week City Council vote:

To encourage people to park their bikes correctly in the first place, SDOT is expanding its bike share parking pilot program. The agency painted five bike-share parking corrals on street corners and extra-wide sidewalks in Ballard. [SDOT Bike Share Program Manager Joel] Miller said, “We did see that parking on those blocks seemed to be better organized with less bikes blocking sidewalks. But it’s too small a pilot to really extrapolate data.”

Route Fifty’s Seattle bureau is within a short walk of SDOT’s Ballard pilot corrals along NW Market Street in Ballard, so bike-parking behaviors there are familiar.

While it is indeed too small a pilot to measure overall performance—use in a fairly dense commercial area may be very different in a less dense area—here are some general observation about SDOT’s painted boxes from someone who often walks by them a few times a day:

  • Although these painted sections of sidewalk might be designated for bicycle parking, that doesn’t mean bicyclists will naturally gravitate there to park compared to adjacent public rights of way. There have been numerous times when a painted corral has been empty while a Lime, Ofo or Spin bike has been parked a few feet away from the special zone designated for them.
A painted zone designated for bicycle parking at NW Market Street and Ballard Avenue in Seattle (Photo by Michael Grass / Route Fifty)
  • Dockless bikeshare users aren’t expected to travel with a tape measure to ensure they’ve parked where they’ve left “at least six feet clear for pedestrians to pass.” Like some operators of motor vehicles, some bicyclists will park where they feel it’s OK to park even if they’re technically not following the rules. Similar to a pedestrian “desire line” where a drumbeat of walkers will naturally eschew a sidewalk and cut a new path across a landscaped area because it’s more direct path, dockless bikeshare users, when provided a flexible environment and the expectation of keeping shared public space organized on the honors system, are going to naturally gravitate to places to park where they feel it’s OK to park even if they aren’t actually permitted to drop their bike there.
  • One of the painted bicycle corrals along Market Street in Ballard—adjacent to a heavily used bus stop, crosswalk and bar—is generally more used than some other pilot locations farther to the east on the street. As these sidewalk parking zones reserved for bicycles pop up in more places, their use may depend on what immediately surrounds them.
An empty corral along NW Market Street in Seattle. (Photo by Michael Grass / Route Fifty)
  • When paired with adjacent space in the street reserved for bicycle parking, these painted boxes on the sidewalk can create a nice zone for bicyclists to dismount without having to go travel on the sidewalk to the bike-parking zone.    
An example of the bike-parking zone straddling the sidewalk and the street, at NW Market Street and Leary Avenue in Seattle. (Photo by Michael Grass / Route Fifty)
  • While there may be more room along the wider sidewalks of NW Market Street in Ballard to accommodate painted parking corrals and dockless bikes, the sidewalks along the historic Ballard Avenue commercial district are far narrower—keeping a bikeshare bike out of the way there is far more challenging.

As dockless bikeshare programs gain steam in more and more cities, many places will be looking to places like Seattle that have charged forward and worked to address the regulatory and operational sticking points. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

But the annoyances and drawbacks don’t outweigh the benefits and popular appeal of bikeshare in the places that have allowed it to gain a foothold and following. It’s been a transformative force for mobility in Seattle, where it’s now a permanent fixture on the city’s streetscape.

(Photo by Michael Grass / Route Fifty)

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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