LimeBike. Spin. Mobike. Ofo. They’re everywhere.
The colorful GPS-tracked bikes that rent for as little as $1 have burst onto the scene, embraced by city dwellers who want easy access to cheap transportation and cities eager to provide alternatives that take vehicles off the road for little to no investment.
“Something about this new business model, something about the dollar ride is very attractive to people that weren’t riding before,” said Gabe Klein, a former transportation chief in the District and Chicago. “The bike market could triple or quadruple.”
Advocates and transportation officials agree that the dockless systems have the potential to significantly boost bike travel. The systems are available in more than 20 U.S. cities, including Seattle, Dallas and Washington, and on a dozen college campuses.
The addition of thousands of bikes to U.S. streets in just six months is only the first step, proponents say, in making them a more attractive option for commuting as has happened in major European cities.
In D.C., for example, the share of bike commuters jumped from just over 1 percent in 2000 to nearly 5 percent today.
“With dockless bikeshare we can hit 10 percent by 2022,” said Klein, who helped launch the city’s first bike-sharing program, Capital Bikeshare, in 2010. The service has since expanded regionwide.
Toby Sun, chief executive of the start-up LimeBike, which launched on a North Carolina college campus in May and is now in 18 U.S. cities, said private bike rentals can change the way mainstream populations use bikes for daily transportation and help cities improve planning and infrastructure building.
Instead of heading to a kiosk or rack of bikes, dockless customers use an app to locate the nearest available bike, usually parked on a street or sidewalk. Customers then scan a code on the bike to unlock the wheels and begin their trip. Once they've finished with the bike, they can park it anywhere it's legal to park a bike. The bikes generally
“We expect that in 2018, as developments in additional bike technology begin to enter the mainstream bike-share market, this proliferation will only get more robust,” he said. “We hope to bring bike traffic in the U.S. from less than 1 percent to more than 10 percent.”
Big cities such as Washington that already run successful bike-share programs can benefit from extra bikes in areas with high demand or where docked stations aren’t available. But the biggest positive impact might be in municipalities that have struggled to fund bike-share systems.
“For Seattle it was impossible to get public money for [bike sharing] so we had to try a different way,” said Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation.
Seattle was the first major U.S. city to open its market to the dockless companies this summer. The city had struggled to sustain its own bike-sharing system, canceling it in March because of low ridership and political challenges. That’s when it began to craft a permit system that is now being replicated in cities across the country to allow the dockless bike-sharing start-ups to operate.
In just a few months, Seattle’s bike fleet went from 500 bikes in the failed program to more than 7,000 dockless bicycles. Its riding record of 0.7 trips per bike daily rose to 2.56 trips per bike per day, putting the city behind only New York in terms of usage, officials said.
The new model, Kubly said, has been more effective in attracting a larger cross-section of riders, from millennials to retirees and minorities.
The bike companies say they want to improve upon existing transportation options, build on the growth of biking’s popularity and help local governments save on infrastructure.
They have lobbied their way into the U.S. markets, rather than entering unannounced like other innovative transportation services in recent years. It’s a lesson learned from the Uber days, transportation and company officials say.
The popular ride-hailing company that revolutionized modern transportation sprang up out of nowhere, taking city regulators by surprise and making enemies in the deep-rooted taxi industry. Regulators weren’t responsive to Uber’s business model at first, creating a difficult relationship.
“We have had time to learn from the pitfalls of earlier ventures across the Pacific,” Sun said. “By adopting a ‘ask permission, not forgiveness’ mentality with regard to our city and university partners, LimeBike has been able to achieve explosive growth while maintaining a positive relationship with the communities we serve.”
San Francisco-based Spin, which is now in 10 markets, recruited an advisory board of individuals who had worked with Lyft, Airbnb and Zipcar to help craft its strategic plan.
Cities too are more welcoming as companies have approached them. Seattle, Dallas and Washington are allowing the companies to operate as part of pilots.
“We said ‘Okay, this is a new business model and we want to be open to it. Yes, you can come in and operate. We are not going to be an impediment to you, but these are the rules,’ ” Kubly said.
Attempts to enter some markets, however, have been difficult. Spin canceled a demonstration project in a small municipality in Queens this summer after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the city of New York.
City transportation officials say they are still “evaluating the viability of the newest generation of bike-sharing technology” and meeting with the companies. But, their commitment is to expanding their public bike-sharing program, Citi Bike.
In some cities, the bikes have become the nuisance that some skeptics feared, showing up abandoned on narrow sidewalks or ramps used by wheelchair users, and obstructing views of monuments and waterfront areas. Some users are taking the bikes home so they can use them the next day.
“Since they can be parked everywhere, they are parked everywhere,” said Joe Gibbons, who chairs an Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Northwest Washington. “We are finding them in areas where we really don’t want them, where they really shouldn’t be parked.”
The complaints in Washington have led neighborhood commissions from the affluent Dupont Circle, Georgetown and Foggy Bottom neighborhoods to call for an emergency meeting.
“Either it is going to get resolved or I don’t see how it can go forward,” Gibbons said.
Government and company officials say they are working on solutions. Companies are exploring methods such as geo-fencing technology, education and incentives for riders to leave the bikes in safe zones. Some bike aficionados are lobbying cities to devote street parking to bikes.
Company officials say their commitment is to maintain order and work collaboratively with cities.
“Our biggest challenge is making the bikes available to anyone who wants them,” said Jason Wong, general manager for Mobike U.S. “That means working with new cities to create unique launch plans, working with communities to make sure we are doing our best to address their local needs, and always refining and improving our operations to make our bikes available when and where people need them most.”