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D.C. withdraws plan targeting dockless bike operations with fees and parking demands

Dockless bikes await riders in downtown Washington in February.
Dockless bikes await riders in downtown Washington in February. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The District has abandoned a plan that would have imposed hefty operating fees and regulations on the operators of dockless bike and scooter systems. Instead, the city is extending — without changes — its pilot program for another four months, through August.

The proposed regulations sought to govern how the private companies operate their services in the city, but the plan was criticized within the industry and many in the biking community who said the District’s approach threatened efforts to grow bike and scooter travel in the nation’s capital.

Amid the pressure, the District Department of Transportation abruptly dropped the plan that officials had previewed for advocates and business leaders as recently as Wednesday. Bike and scooter operators learned about the proposal April 19.

“We are extending the program in its current form. No changes,” DDOT spokesman Terry L. Owens said late Thursday, a day after he had confirmed discussions of the new regulations and plans to unveil them Friday as part of phase two of the pilot.

The dockless bikes, which rent for as little as $1, have clogged city sidewalks since the District launched a tryout in September; electric scooters followed this spring and have become another popular option. The District was one of the first major cities to welcome the new technology, which has since grown exponentially across the country.

The experiment with the app-based systems has boosted biking in segments of the population that didn’t use the region’s Capital Bikeshare system, among them younger, lower-income riders and people of color. But it also has ignited conflict as residents and other road users have complained about bikes and scooters being left in parks; dumped along creeks, buildings and monuments; and blocking pedestrian access. In public meetings and forums, the vehicles have been called “urban trash” and “sidewalk clutter.”

The regulations, which were secretly presented to the industry, outlined requirements around parking and other operating procedures. They included fees that amounted to about $200 per bike in service and required companies to implement double kickstands or “lock to” capabilities on their two-wheelers and to install bike racks in yet-to-be-designated areas to facilitate parking, according to several people who were briefed on the plans.

Only Jump bikes, the company recently acquired by Uber, features an integrated U-lock that is held magnetically to the frame of its e-bikes.

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City transportation officials had spent months drafting the rules they hoped would strike a balance, allowing the services to continue to operate while addressing the public’s concerns. Plans were to enact the regulations after the conclusion of the pilot phase, which was scheduled to end Monday.

It is unclear whether the city is merely putting the regulations on hold or ditching them completely as it extends the pilot to continue studying how the services are working.

Seven companies have dockless services in the District. Spin, Mobike, Ofo and LimeBike offer regular bicycles. Jump’s fleet is 100 electric bikes. Bird and Waybots provide scooters. LimeBike has scooters and bikes in its D.C. fleet.

Other cities have implemented similar regulations, including fees per bicycle, but the industry complained that the District would have had the highest fee per bike in the country. It would have amounted to an $80,000 annual payment to the city from each company that deploys 400 vehicles — the maximum number allowed under the city’s rules.

“The fee size is effectively telling the private sector to go away,” one company executive said.

“It is not an incentive for folks to come to D.C. and operate,” an official with another company said. “We know that D.C. is a forward-looking city and has embraced technology and was one of the first to embrace ride sharing across the country, but you impose taxes like these on companies to operate, and it’s really tough to do so. . . . It is really excessive. It is a massive tax on tech companies.”

The executives spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly and to not jeopardize their relationship with the city.

In Seattle, bike-share companies pay $149 for an annual bike-share license and $15 per bike. Durham, N.C., charges a $250 application fee and $10 per bike. And St. Louis charges a $500 annual permit fee and $10 per bike each year.

As the demonstration period continues in the District through August, the stationless operations will continue to have a maximum fleet of 400 vehicles. City officials also had considered keeping the size restriction and limiting the number of scooters within that cap to 100 for the companies that offer both services.

David Alpert, executive director of D.C. Sustainable Transportation, a coalition of advocates, businesses and government agencies working on issues around transportation, said advocates and business leaders had concerns about the regulations having a negative impact on the pilot program, which despite its hiccups is considered to have been generally a good option for residents who wouldn’t otherwise choose bike sharing.

“Reasonable regulations make sense, I think everyone agrees,” Alpert said. He said more data collection during the summer, when usage is higher, would help guide the city to “strike that balance about doing what’s reasonable to protect the public, making sure that [biking] can grow and providing people transportation.”

“It has allowed people to have biking as a choice, people to have the opportunity. It is a valuable program,” Alpert said. “People would really like it to be successful.”

He said advocates and business leaders acknowledge that there have been problems, including bikes dumped in canals and those blocking access, but there are signs that people have grown more accustomed to how to ride and park them properly, he said.

Companies, too, welcomed the city’s decision to proceed without the changes, at least for now.

“We appreciate the DDOT for taking a thoughtful approach in determining the future of dockless shared mobility in the District, and we look forward to continuing to work together to craft rules that promote innovation, equity and consumer safety,” said Taylor Bennett, a spokesman for China-based Ofo.

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The unchanged cap on the number of vehicles allowed, however, is still a concern for the companies, whose leaders say it is shortsighted to impose an arbitrary limit that doesn’t allow them to grow or effectively serve all sectors of the District.

The cap of 400 was a good start for the testing period, company officials said, but it is now a disservice to residents who have embraced the bike-share systems and have come to expect greater access to them.

They said the cap prevents them from being able to serve the entire city, where some estimate there is demand for as many as 20,000 bicycles. And restricting the number of scooters, they complained, is shortsighted given that their use rate is higher than that of the bikes. The scooters also have helped reduce parking problems because the companies pick them up each night and put them back each morning, company officials said.

“We support a regulatory framework that allows us to boost transportation equity,” LimeBike spokeswoman Mary Caroline Pruitt said before the regulations were withdrawn.

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As the program continues, the companies are bound by a permit that requires them to ensure their bikes and scooters are in working order, well-maintained and clean, and in compliance with city biking law.

Bikes cannot be parked on landscaped areas, at bus stops or shelters, or blocking Capital Bikeshare stations, driveways, curb ramps or loading zones. And they can’t block pedestrian pathways. Riding them on downtown sidewalks is prohibited.

Companies are required to move improperly parked bikes and scooters within two hours of receiving a complaint. And the bikes must be available in all eight wards of the District to ensure access to all residents.

The companies said they will continue to work with DDOT to craft a “common-sense regulatory framework” that protects consumer safety and allows for greater choice. DDOT said it also will continue to work with the companies as the dockless demonstration is continued in coming months.

“During the extension, we will continue to work with the participating companies to find remedies to concerns raised by the community during the first few months of the pilot,” the agency said in a statement. “DDOT will also continue to collect data as we evaluate the impact of the program through the warmer months.”