The last time the city of Austin tried to harness an app-based, cutting-edge transportation approach, the result was two years of civic turmoil, a hit to the city’s reputation and, ultimately, nullification of local law on ride-hailing apps by the Legislature.
Now, as dockless bike-share companies circle Austin eager to unleash their colorful product on its streets, city transportation officials Thursday are asking the Austin City Council for permission to start a “pilot demonstration program.” Or rather, to design one, after sounding out the public, and then launch whatever that pilot turns out to be. Timing to be determined later.
“We’re very excited for the process, and to work with the city to come up with a framework,” said Sam Sadle, director of strategic development with California-based LimeBike. Sadle said the company has promised not to begin operations here until the city gives it the all-clear sign. “We’ll work with the city around the schedule, but our hope is to provide our service as soon as possible.”
With dockless bike-share systems such as LimeBike, customers use a phone app to locate and unlock a bike. They can ride the bike anywhere they want, then park and leave it for the next person. LimeBike charges $1 for 30 minutes, or 50 cents for students.
The no-station-needed system gives the dockless cycles more reach than station-based systems and at less cost, proponents say.
But with dockless bike companies causing turmoil in other U.S. cities — including in Dallas, where city officials say as many as 20,000 free-range rental bikes from at least five businesses are clogging sidewalks and trails — the undefined nature of that potential Austin pilot program has some bicycle and downtown advocates concerned. And they worry that the new, unruly competitors could undercut B-Cycle, the city’s 4-year-old station-based bike rental operation.
The open-ended measure coming before the council Thursday “may be premature,” said former Council Member Chris Riley, an avid cyclist and president of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association. “It seems like a ‘fire, ready, aim’ approach. It would be more responsible to go a little slower on this.”
Riley and others said the council should require that the pilot and proposed dockless bike regulations come back for approval after the particulars have been decided. Riley was a staunch advocate for ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft when, without city sanction, they launched operations in Austin in June 2014.
“Long-term, I could see how the two systems (B-Cycle and dockless firms) could co-exist,” Riley said. “But I’m hearing all sorts of stories about what is going on in Dallas, about bikes being left on trails and in waterways. If we just rush pell-mell into dockless, there is some risk of unexpected consequences.”
The council on Thursday is also being asked to set a $30-per-bike annual fee for dockless systems. And the city Transportation Department is also seeking permission to put $200,000 into B-Cycle to qualify for a $908,500 federal grant. That would allow B-Cycle, owned by the city but run by the nonprofit Bike Share of Austin, to install 15 more bike stations and buy an additional 100 rental bikes.
That would bring the operation, launched in late 2013, to 69 docking stations in the city’s core and 525 of the heavy, red rental bikes.
B-Cycle has been struggling to raise $241,500 in local matching funds for the grant, which federal officials in 2015 had agreed to give the system. Executive Director Elliott McFadden said $75,000 in donations are in hand or pledged, but that the nonprofit would need another year or more to land the whole match.
“The city wanted to accelerate putting stations down sooner,” McFadden said.
B-Cycle had about 156,000 trips in its first full year of 2014. It reached just under 200,000 rentals in 2016, before slipping last year to 190,000, or about 520 per day.
Robert Spillar, the Austin Transportation Department’s director, in a Jan. 29 memo to the council acknowledged the push-pull of simultaneously beefing up B-Cycle and asking to craft a dockless bike pilot.
“Questions naturally arise as to why the city should invest in its station-based system when the dockless model would suggest that bike share can be provided through the private marketplace,” Spillar wrote. But dockless bike-sharing, which only last year hit the U.S. in meaningful numbers, “is still largely unproven,” he wrote, “whereas it is known that Austin’s existing station-based model (is) a reliable mobility option where stations exist.”
LimeBike officials point to what they say have been positive rollouts of their bikes in Seattle, South Bend, Ind., and Greensboro, N.C. But the situation in Dallas, where LimeBike was allowed to begin operations in August with no regulations in place, stands as a cautionary tale.
LimeBike says it has about 10,000 bikes there, The Dallas Morning News reported in December. And other companies, most prominently Ofo, a Chinese company, have matched that number, according to Dallas officials. The result has been bikes randomly underfoot on city sidewalks there, a nuisance for all pedestrians and a particular danger for people with disabilities.
And the bikes, some of them vandalized into tire-less or seat-less corpses, have turned up in trees, on wires, in creek beds, at the bottom of White Rock Lake in East Dallas and on front lawns as a creative substitute for toilet-papering pranks.
Dallas officials sent a Jan. 18 letter demanding the companies clean up the situation, and they are now discussing imposing regulations.
“We have heard the Dallas community’s feedback loud and clear,” LimeBike CEO Toby Sun said in a Jan. 24 reply to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. The company promises to add more staff to wrangle and repair the bike fleet, to ensure the bicycles are better distributed through the city and to put no new bikes on the streets.
Molly Alexander, deputy director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, said the advocacy group has several recommendations. The city needs to figure out a proper ratio of bikes and company workers assigned to monitor them. Financial penalties are needed for the companies and their customers to ensure that bikes are parked properly.
And the city should demand that the bikes used in such systems, she said, are not flimsy, dangerous for riders or short-lived.
“We don’t want to prevent new solutions,” Alexander said, “but we want it done well.”
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