Spring will come, the days will get warmer, and our roads and bicycle paths will bloom with bikes. What about our sidewalks?
Last year, dockless bike-sharing bicycles really started to explode around Washington. With our young, fit population, we’re the perfect place for companies such as Mobike, LimeBike and Ofo to battle it out for market share. As with any battlefield, ours is riddled with the evidence of war, but instead of shell fragments and downed planes, it’s bikes that are seemingly everywhere.
I have a couple of reactions to these brightly colored metal steeds. On one hand, I’m pro-bike. I wish Washington had a proper cycling infrastructure, like the dedicated and protected lanes I used when I lived in England or when I visited My Lovely Wife during the year she spent in The Hague.
On the other hand, the rental bikes often seem to be scattered about the city in clumps: a phalanx of bikes accreting outside a Metro station, on a street corner, in a park. That illustrates the convenience of bike-sharing — when the impulse strikes you, you can ride — but what I wondered was this: What about blind people? If they’re accustomed to navigating a certain route, do haphazardly parked bikes pose a hazard?
Straight off, I’ll say that the activists for the visually impaired I spoke to told me they have not had an upswing of complaints about bumping into bikes. But it is something they will be keeping tabs on.
“I will say that any shift in what is normally around on a routine route can pose a serious problem for the visually impaired,” said Brad Snyder, a former Navy explosives expert who lost his vision to an IED in Afghanistan. “This is a very underappreciated issue for us, and I know I speak for a lot of blind folks when I say that we all collectively hate garbage day for this reason. It would be wonderful if the world agreed upon a fixed location for things like trash cans and cafe tables, but they seem to move around quite a bit and often catch a blind person like myself off guard.”
Jocelyn Hunter of the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind said her organization has not received reports of clients walking into parked bike-sharing bicycles. They’re more concerned, she said, with bikes that are moving, not stationary.
“It’s a challenge when [cyclists] are riding on the sidewalk,” she said. “They could potentially bump into a client or startle the client.” (A reminder: It’s against the law to ride a bike on a sidewalk in most parts of downtown Washington.)
To their credit, the bike-sharing companies seem to understand that no one wants a big pile of bikes. LimeBike’s website includes “Parking Dos and Don’ts,” with instructions not to park at bus stops or street corners, and not to block wheelchair paths and crosswalks.
“Ultimately, together we are creating a culture where people rely on and appreciate bikeshare so much that responsible use and parking becomes a natural habit,” wrote LimeBike’s Mary Caroline Pruitt in an email.
Jason Wong, U.S. general manager of Mobike, wrote: “As we work to roll out a system that has significantly improved the quality of life for millions of people around the world, the onus is on us, bikeshare companies, to prove that we are respectful community partners. That’s why Mobike has clear parking guidelines, local staff who constantly rebalance the fleet and pick up fallen bikes, and a scoring system through the app that incentivizes good behavior.”
Taylor Bennett of Ofo said the company’s local operations team works to move bikes away from wheelchair ramps, rights of way and building entrances. “We make it a priority to respond immediately to any issues, and are regularly educating our riders on how and where to properly park,” he wrote in an email.
Taylor said that “geofencing” technology encourages users to park in preferred zones. “The feature creates a virtual boundary within the geofenced area, and riders who park here will be rewarded with an extra credit in their app,” he wrote.
He added that Ofo wants to work with disability rights advocates to understand and address their concerns.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that when cycling increases with the advent of nicer weather, the bike-sharing bicycles will be an orderly part of the street furniture.
And I’m reminded that however we get around, as we go about our daily routines — on two feet or on two wheels (or four) — we should be mindful not just of the other people like us, but also the others who are not like us.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.