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Are dockless bikeshare systems changing Washington’s biking culture?

Dockless ride-share bikes are now a common sight on District sidewalks. Available via a mobile app, they offer a cheaper alternative to other transportation options. (Mark Miller/The Washington Post)

The new dockless bike-share companies that have taken off in the District are attracting a different kind of customer than the traditional Capital Bikeshare system: Their riders are more racially diverse, slightly younger and less affluent, according to transportation officials and an academic review of the services.

A new study by Virginia Tech found that a good share of the bikes are taking trips to areas that are historically majority-minority, a clear distinction when compared to the share of trips made on Capital Bikeshare bikes, the city-sponsored system that is known for its distinctive red bikes and docking stations.

The study found dockless users mirror a more diverse crowd, from economic to gender and race when compared to members of Capital Bikeshare. Similar to Capital Bikeshare, the majority of dockless bike riders are white, but the Virginia Tech survey found that the second-largest ethnic group of dockless bike riders are black, a distinction with Capital Bikeshare data that shows African Americans are the fourth-largest user group.

A larger proportion of dockless bike riders earn less than $35,000 a year as compared to Capital Bikeshare riders. The largest user group for Capital Bikeshare has incomes within the $100,000 to $149,000 range, while that range was the fourth group for dockless bike riders surveyed. In addition, the proportion of riders over the age of 55 was much larger for Capital Bikeshare at 11 percent than dockless bikeshare at only 2 percent.

“Our data suggest that more people of color and women are using dockless bikes than [Capital Bikeshare] on a proportional basis. Also, the non-permanent nature of dockless bikes potentially allows them to be much more accessible to underserved portions of the District,” the study concludes.

“It is unclear whether the issue of transportation equity with regard to bikeshare overall in the District has been solved with the introduction of the five dockless companies,” the study notes. “However, initial data analysis suggests that the rider demographics and geographic reach has made bikeshare more available and accessible.”

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Moving forward, officials say more study will help them understand the impact of the services and more collaboration in the region will facilitate better service. On Thursday, for example, officials discussed having one regional number where residents can call in complaints or report stranded bikes.

Officials also discussed working collaboratively to decide whether having a cap on the number of bikes per company makes sense and, if so, what’s the ideal number to meet the demand.

Surveys like those done by Virginia Tech, along with data from the companies offer insight on the performance of the dockless bikes and their potential to grow bike commuting by reaching a wider group of riders, officials say. But as the services expand across the region, they also increase the need for more bike parking and uniform policies to govern the services, addressing problems ranging from inadequate use to safety and to keeping the companies accountable, they said.

“We need to have a seamless system just like with Capital Bikeshare,” said Gary Erenrich, special assistant to the director of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation.

“The regional coordination is essential,” he added, noting that bikes are inevitably going across jurisdictional lines.

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Erenrich’s comments were made Thursday during a discussion of dockless bikeshare at a meeting of the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

The District and Montgomery County launched pilots last year to allow the companies to operate while they come up with permanent regulations. Neighboring jurisdictions are a keeping close eye on their experiences.

So far, officials say the programs are operating as expected, expanding options by making bikes available in neighborhoods not served by Capital Bikeshare.

However, they also cite challenges, such as dealing with bikes left abandoned for days in parks, dumped in creeks and being ridden to jurisdictions where they are not permitted to operate.

“When you are talking about a region that’s so close together, things are going to cross borders,” said Darren Buck, program manager for Alexandria’s Complete Streets Program. Alexandria has seen bikes show up on its side of the Potomac and is studying how to properly bring the services in.

“We have to think about what makes sense not only for our jurisdiction, but what is rational for what is happening in the rest of the region,” Buck said.

The influx of the dockless bikes on park land has prompted the National Park Service to review its bike policy and contemplate issuing a formal authorization for dockless companies to operate on park land, Laurel Hammig, regional planner for the National Park Service said at the meeting.

Officials said complaints about the bikes are lessening as users learn the rules of the systems — and non-users adjust to having them around. At a recent Montgomery town hall meeting about dockless bikes, the 300 attendees were nearly equally divided for and against the program, Erenrich said.

In the District, five companies operate dockless bikes and two operate scooters. One company, Lime, offers both. Each company can have up to 400 vehicles on the road. Montgomery, which has agreements with four companies to operate in Silver Spring and Takoma Park, does not have a cap on the number of vehicles each is allowed to operate.

User data presented Thursday show that a good share of the bikes are being ridden across the District and Montgomery County lines. In Montgomery, Erenrich said county employees must regularly inspect areas such as Sligo Creek Parkway where bikes have been left behind.