Bike-sharing as we know it in Washington is about to change with the arrival of dockless systems.
Starting Wednesday, cyclists in the nation's capital will have access to GPS-tracked smart bikes that rent for as little as $1 and give users freedom to ride without having to plan their trips around fixed pickup and drop-off locations.
Instead of heading to a kiosk, such as with the familiar Capital Bikeshare racks, dockless customers will use an app to locate the nearest available bike, usually parked on a street or sidewalk. Customers will scan a code on the bike to unlock the wheels and begin their trip. Once they're finished with the bike, they can park it any place it's legal to park a bike. The bikes generally self-lock.
Payment is made electronically.
"Everything is done through the app on your mobile phone so it is a convenient experience — and seamless," said Hu Weiwei, founder of Mobike, one of China's top dockless bike-sharing start-ups.
The company, which has more than 7 million bikes in 180 cities — mostly in China — is entering the U.S. market via the District. It's deploying about 200 bicycles built with smart-lock technology, starting Wednesday.
San Francisco-based Spin also is launching operations in the city this week, touting an American product that is now available in three other major U.S. cities. LimeBike, a San Mateo, Calif.-based company that has systems in eight U.S. cities and seven college campuses, says it also plans to enter the D.C. scene. D.C. transportation officials say a total of six companies have expressed interest in doing business in the city, and officials are working to get them through the permitting process.
In opening the market to dockless bike-sharing, the District is once again proving itself to be a testing ground for the latest trend in the shared-transportation economy.
"D.C. is a great place to innovate," said Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. "It's exciting that private businesses are seeing a market for bike-sharing in the District."
The District has the second-highest share of bike commuters among U.S. cities (Portland, Ore., is No. 1), and the fascination with biking only continues to rise as the city invests in bike lanes and other infrastructure, including the subsidized Capital Bikeshare program. Nearly 5 percent of D.C. commuters make their trips on two wheels, according to census data.
The District also is among the first U.S. cities to embrace the dockless concept, which has boomed in China over the past year. San Francisco, Seattle and Dallas are experimenting with dockless bikes. Other cities are beginning to debate how to legally allow such ventures as a new generation of bike companies is eager to enter the market, competing with the traditional station-based and subsidized bike-sharing programs.
In some cities, the dockless systems offer an alternative to publicly funded programs that can be costly to build and operate. In Seattle, for example, the dockless program became an inexpensive route for the city to pursue after it shut down its failing municipal bike-sharing program last spring.
D.C. officials say they are not looking to replace the successful Capital Bikeshare program, but instead want to increase the availability of bicycles in areas where Capital Bikeshare has left gaps. Although the regional bike network has 3,700 bikes at 440 stations, the program is not available in many neighborhoods — particularly east of the Anacostia River.
Spin plans to have bikes in all wards, including underserved neighborhoods. Mobike said its bikes will appear overnight in key downtown locations — but the locations will then change depending on demand and usage.
The city also hopes to address its peak demand problem, where bike-sharing stations empty in the neighborhoods and quickly fill downtown during rush hour, leaving many riders scrambling to find an open dock to park.
"This could be a flexible way to augment the capacity of bike-share to move people when Capital Bikeshare is maxed out," said Sam Zimbabwe, with the District Department of Transportation.
Because there is no regulatory framework for the operation of dockless bike services, city transportation officials say they will use the next six months to allow companies to test the services and come up with rules to address concerns that have provoked backlash to similar programs in other cities.
The city will need to ensure that the bikes are safe to ride, while also keeping order on the streets. Officials and business leaders say they don't want to see bikes clogging sidewalks and piling up outside transit stations, office buildings and road intersections, scenes that have become too common in China.
"We want the operators to ensure that the infrastructure that they are putting out there is safe for the public," Zimbabwe said. "We are not doing inspections for every bike, but we are setting up some standards for safety."
Advocates say that dockless biking systems may require some adjustment, and some users might need a refresher in cycling etiquette so they know where to leave bikes so they don't become a public nuisance. Adding a few hundred bikes to city streets could also add pressure for bike parking, already a problem downtown. Billing said he hopes the city would use resources to increase parking on sidewalks and on streets.
City officials say there are thousands of bike parking slots in public spaces and off-street, and they have worked with the Downtown and Golden Triangle Business Improvement Districts to install hundreds of racks in public spaces in the past several years.
The companies say they will have people on the ground tracking the dockless bikes, redistributing them and making sure they are legally and neatly parked. Mobike, LimeBike and Spin are promising rates of $1 for a 30-minute ride, a cheaper option than Capital Bikeshare's $2, 30-minute trip.
Apps for all three are available for iOS and Android.
Spin chief executive Derrick Ko said his company sees its role as a complement to Capital Bikeshare, providing bikes for use in all quadrants of the District, getting commuters to and from Metro stations and contributing to the city's effort to get people out of cars.
"D.C. is a fantastic bike-commute city," he said. He said the bikes will add more options for commuters, while also providing an option to expand bike-sharing without requiring heavy taxpayer capital investments.
"The cities can now use the money that they would have spent on adding bike-share systems to actually improving and installing bike infrastructure," he said.