Bike-sharing has blown up in the past year, but cities are wary after the mess in China

LimeBikes in Seattle started the influx of dockless bikes in American cities last year.

Image: LimeBike

Friday is National Bike to Work Day, but this year it’s a bit different. 

It’s the first year the U.S. will celebrate the two-wheeled holiday since the inundation of bike-share companies, with dockless bicycle fleets landing in cities across America over the last 12 months. 

While the shared bicycles add another convenient commuting option for riders, they’re stressing out city planners and transit departments wary of bike litter, unsafe use, and overrun streets.

Dockless — bicycles that lock to themselves or can be locked to a post or rack — app-enabled bikes, like the green bikes from Lime, yellow bikes from Ofo, red bikes from Jump, or white-and-blue colored bikes from Pace, have arrived en masse since last summer, changing up how people commute and how cities regulate biking programs. 

Similar to how you can order a ride-share car on your phone, the GPS-connected bicycles pop up on a map within their company’s app. Once you track one down, you can unlock the bike through the app and ride it away. Your credit card information is stored and you’re charged based on how long you ride.

No city wants to look like many Chinese cities where dockless bike-sharing companies like Ofo and Mobike launched a few years ago and made a mess with crowded sidewalks and bike litter blighting streets. 

Remember this from 2017? That's a huge pile of shared bikes in Shenzhen, China.

Remember this from 2017? That’s a huge pile of shared bikes in Shenzhen, China.

Image: SILENT HILL/IMAGINECHINA

Australia has seen a similar mess, with certain city councils like Melbourne (which saw hundreds of bikes being dumped in the Yarra River) working with bike-sharing companies to develop regulations.

In the U.S., Dallas saw dockless bike companies arriving early last year. It’s a good example of a city where few regulations meant shared bikes took over the streets and things got messy fast. A dedicated Instagram, aptly named Dallas Bike Mess, documents dockless bikes piled up and knocked down around the city. 

In April, Chicago wanted to get ahead of the bike litter problem and introduced limits on where companies could operate, and how many bikes they could offer through the apps. 

Just this month, Austin rolled out a dockless bike- and scooter-share program hoping to bring order to an inherently messy system.

Laura Dierenfield, manager of the active transportation and street design division of Austin’s transportation department, told Mashable there’s an appetite — whetted at last year’s South by Southwest festival — for dockless bikes. The Texas city has had a station-based bike-share system for almost five years, but it’s the fact that dockless vehicles can be parked at any public rack which makes it truly appealing.

“Dockless systems are a little more convenient for people,” Jacob Culberson, from Austin’s mobility services division, said in a call.

So, the city of Austin looked into allowing in new bike-share companies and setting some parameters for what the system would look like, such as rules about locking the bikes to racks and requiring permits for bike-share operators.

“We’re cultivating a culture of cooperative community,” Dierenfield said, meaning riders, companies, city officials, and residents alike should stand up fallen bikes, follow safety guidelines for the bikes, and park the devices properly. No riding and dumping.

Regular ride-sharers love the system though

People riding on the newest generation of bike-share fleets don’t seem too affected by city regulators’ struggle to contain the surge in bike programs. After talking to a few riders around the country, it seems they’ve quickly embraced the dockless car-free transit option since bike-shares rolled into their neighborhoods within the past year.

“I knew it was the way I should be getting around, but it wasn’t that feasible,” 29-year-old Pace rider Lucas Lindsey said in a phone call. He’s based in Tallahassee, Florida, and when a bike-share arrived a few months ago, he started incorporating biking into his transit plans. Pace, from bike-share startup company Zagster, has launched in Tallahassee.

“It changes how we calculate how we do our day,” he said. “It allowed me to actualize this idea that I had where you could ride a bike in a city.”

For others, especially in smaller cities and towns, the ride-shares open up new travel options — even if they don’t ride every day. 

Ofo rider Victor Dover, 55, in South Miami, Florida, is a self-described bike enthusiast. “I’m one of those people who just finds it liberating,” he said. Dover agrees riders need to be conscientious of where the vehicles are parked, especially if they are blocking pedestrian and motorist access. But unlike the ominous predictions of cities overrun by bikes, Dover sees the addition of bikes to his area as a boost.

“In my city, it’s had the effect of getting people on two wheels,” he said. For Dover, anything that gets people out of cars is an improvement.

Zach Cochran, another Pace rider based in Knoxville, Tenn., said he’s always wanted to ride a bike to get around, but he never had the storage capacity. Now, when he’s downtown for work he can jump on a bike and not worry about parking. 

“It’s a fairly new concept here,” he said about the app-based bike-shares. “People are figuring it out.”

In San Francisco, where dock-based Ford GoBikes populate the official city bicycle program, the Uber-owned dockless bike-share Jump is limited in its number of electric-assist bikes. This has led to some cut-throat situations to snag an available bicycle (and not a broken dud.) Anecdotally, the demand for dockless bike access has more than arrived.

“Organize the chaos”

So, what’s to be done? The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) put out a report this week urging local government to “organize the chaos” of dockless bike-share programs. The New York-based non-profit and NGO, which promotes sustainable and equitable transportation worldwide, estimates 1,000 cities worldwide have some sort of bike-share option.

To show the proliferation of these vehicles, the report pointed out that dockless bike-shares have replaced about 10 percent of car trips Shenzhen, China — the very same city where those giant piles of dumped bikes turned up.

Bike-shares can be successful if they are accessible, affordable, integrated.

In a look at international bike-share trends in 15 cities including Seattle, Washington, D.C., Dublin, Mexico City, Guangzhou, Paris, and Montreal, the institute found bike-shares can be successful if they are accessible, affordable, integrated with other transit systems, and clear with expectations about proper parking and riding — and are well staffed to keep up with vehicle maintenance.

This Bike to Work Day may be the first with so many dockless bikes riding around, but if the companies, riders, and cities can find a balance, there could be many more days celebrating all things dockless and bicycle. 

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