Austin OKs dockless bike rental pilot, with a one-year limit

3:14 p.m Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018 Local
LimeBike rentals lie one on top of another in a line along Young Street in downtown Dallas on Tuesday, December 19, 2017. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)

The Austin City Council on Thursday approved the creation of a “dockless” bike share pilot program, but made it clear this is a one-year test drive.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, who proposed the time limit, noted that some short-term policy tests by the city were left open ended. Then, when the council wanted to make them permanent but tweak the rules — she cited ride hailing and short-term housing rentals as examples — advocates for those programs complained of broken policy promises.

Council Member Ann Kitchen also added a condition, with her colleagues’ support, requiring city transportation officials to check back with the council’s Mobility Committee with the specific design of the pilot program before kicking it off.

The vote to approve the design and implementation of the pilot, and well as a $30-per-bike fee for dockless rental bikes, passed 10-1, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair opposed. Robert Spillar, director of the city transportation department, estimated that a public process to design the pilot would be completed by May or June.

City staff has estimated it would get $90,000 in fee revenue from the program this year, which would indicate that as many as 3,000 rental bikes would be on city streets by the end of the summer.

BACK STORY: Dockless bike pilot makes some downtown, bike advocates nervous

The city owns a station-based bike rental system, called B-Cycle, which has been operating since December 2013 and had about 190,000 rentals tax year, or roughly one rental per day for each bike. That system has 54 permanent docking stations and 425 available bikes.

The council, in a separate vote, allocated $200,000 to B-Cycle, which is operated by a nonprofit under a contract with the city, as a match for a federal grant of just above $900,000. The combined $1.1 million will be used to build 18 more docking stations for the bikes (three are in place already) and buy 100 more bikes.

The dockless bikes will represent competition for the city’s still-fledgling bike rental operation.

Over the past year, various companies have begun bringing rental bikes into U.S. cities — sometimes with city regulations in place, sometimes not — that can be picked up and dropped off anywhere using a phone app to unlock the bikes. Companies such as LimeBike, Ofo and MoBike typically charge a dollar rental fee for 30 to 60 minutes.

Those dockless bikes have been a problem in some cities, most particularly Dallas where no rules are in place, because customers have tended to discard them in places that obstruct sidewalks and trails, or pile them in places as pranks or vandalism.

Some critics in Austin have been concerned as well that the dockless bikes will take part of the market from B-Cycle and ultimately kill it, without any guarantees that the new bike share wrinkle will survive in the long run.