Could ‘dockless’ bike-share be an Uber-Lyft replay for Austin?

Nov 25, 2017
This rental bike from Ofo, a bike-share company, was spotted on Congress Avenue during SXSW. The company had put the bikes on Austin streets without the city’s permission, and it removed them after officials objected.

The sudden appearance of several dozen “dockless” bikes back in March might have a familiar ring to anyone who watched Uber and Lyft barge unauthorized into the Austin market back in 2014.

The rental bicycles, some of them bright yellow and others a non-Austintatious shade of orange, simply showed up here and there on downtown Austin streets as South by Southwest kicked off. City officials, looking at the Ofo and Spin logos on the bikes — some properly upright on kick-stands, others lying forlornly on their sides — were befuddled at first. There were even a few gray bikes from a company creatively called Donkey Republic.

“We tried to get ahold of them, and weren’t initially successful,” said Laura Dierenfield, the city’s Active Transportation manager. “There was absolutely no understanding of who they were, how they were operating at all.”

So the city slapped pink impoundment tags on the rogue bikes. By the next morning, the first Saturday of SXSW, Dierenfield says the companies got in touch. The city and Spin quickly worked out a deal to let the orange bikes remain through the festival, as long as there was no charge for their use. Ofo agreed to scoop up their bikes and leave, she said.

The companies, Dierenfield said, were violating at least two city laws. The bikes were obstructing the sidewalk in many cases, and renting them ran afoul of city law requiring a permit for street vendors. In this case, it was a digital street vendor whose wares move from place to place.

READ: Uber, Lyft return to Austin as Abbott signs ride-hailing bill

This abrupt entry onto the Austin scene of a new type of transportation service has put the city once again in the position of deciding how to regulate the business, an especially ticklish task given that it will be competing directly with the city’s own station-based rental bike service, B-Cycle. Austin’s Transportation Department, while researching what has happened in other cities like Seattle and Dallas, began discussions this summer with Spin officials about how best to do that.

Eight months after the dockless bikes’ cameo here, the city has yet to craft and release even a draft version of a dockless rental bike ordinance. And, even with companies like Spin and LimeBike impatient to begin operating here, city officials won’t say when they will push such rules to the Austin City Council for approval.

“The idea is to step back and say, looking at all this and what we’ve learned from other cities, how can we best serve the city overall?” Dierenfield said in an interview, adding that she intends to produce an “overarching strategy” with some recommendations in the next couple of weeks. “There’s encouraging interest. There’s an existing system. And there’s a lot of discussions going on.”

And a lot of concern about what happens if a horde of variously hued bikes, rentable through smartphone apps, begin littering the urban landscape. And, more to the point, taking market share from an established bike-share system that the city and its allies worked for several years to make a reality. Cities across the U.S., and elsewhere are wrestling with this latest transportation wrinkle.

With dockless bike-share systems like 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. Spin charges a buck for each half-hour.

The no-station-needed system gives the dockless cycles more reach than station-based systems and at less cost, proponents say. Because no stations are required, the system makes bikes accessible to people in low-income areas, at least in theory.

But not everyone agrees it’s a good idea. Opponents worry about the bikes cluttering sidewalks, and in Washington, D.C., bikes from dockless systems have been illegally parked, blocking walkways and building entrances. (Some pranksters have even “parked” dockless bikes in trees. This blog records odd places where people have found them.)

LimeBike, based in California, was founded in January. Already, the company has deployed about 10,000 bikes in 27 cities and campuses around the country, including its biggest market, Dallas. Spin, founded a year ago by San Francisco-based Skinny Labs Inc., now has bikes on the street in Seattle and Washington, D.C.

“For the first time, mass consumers get access to bike-share,” said Caen Contee, vice president of marketing and partnership for LimeBike. “Bike-share has been limited to the footprint the city can afford. Even the most extensive systems are restricted to a limited downtown area.”

The company can track the bikes by GPS, then collect and redistribute them if they end up in a remote location.

Contee said LimeBike is “in conversations” to come to Austin, and that the dockless system would be “complimentary” to the existing Austin B-Cycle system. He said the company, once it decides to come in, could deploy bikes within three weeks. Ultimately, he’d like to see about 10,000 of the bright green and yellow LimeBikes rolling along Austin streets.

However, Dierenfield, the city official to have such conversations with, said she has not talked to LimeBike officials recently. City and LimeBike officials did have a conference call in April, the city Transportation Department acknowledged, but no talks since then.

“They’ve just reached out” to me again, she said. “I haven’t even had a chance to return the phone call. And there are others.”

Including, most prominently, B-Cycle and what appears to be a clear-cut conflict of interest for the city government as it considers rules for dockless bike operations.

What could be considered Austin’s “traditional” bike-share system in this rapidly changing mobility landscape launched only four years ago after a difficult and delayed birth. The system’s bikes and stations were funded by a combination of a federal grant to the city of Austin and more than $500,000 in private donations. The stations are on city-owned right of way — streets and sidewalks — and, most significantly, the city is the owner of the system.

Bike Share of Austin, a nonprofit, is merely the operator.

Customers can check out B-Cycle’s red bicycles from any of 54 stations, mainly in downtown. The 425-bike system recently received a second, $1 million federal grant that, with more private donations to provide a required 20 percent in matching funds, will add an additional 15 stations and 85 bikes by next fall.

Elliott McFadden, executive director of Austin B-Cycle (and a Democratic candidate for Congress), worries that a dockless bike-share system will result in bicycles cluttering sidewalks, blocking parking lot entrances or getting tossed into ditches or creeks.

“The problem is, if you can leave a bike anywhere, the bikes do end up everywhere,” McFadden said. “It becomes a public nuisance.

“Do I want to see stacks of bikes in front of my building? If I’m in a neighborhood, do I want bikes in my front yard? I think we need to have a public discussion, because this is going to impact people who use sidewalks and own property along these sidewalks.”

He also said the city should be compensated for a dockless bike-share system’s use of public right of way for commercial purposes.

“The city needs to set up an ordinance or process,” McFadden said. “You can’t just pop up a food truck without going through a permitting process. It feels like we’re chasing the shiny new thing without thinking about the impact.”

Or, in this case, being chased by the shiny new thing.

“We were really intrigued by this interest in Austin,” Dierenfield said of the ad hoc bike invasion in March. “It was another type of shared mobility.”

But that intrigue, at least so far, has not been translated into written policy.

“We’ve got a wonderful, stable, popular, well-managed system,” Dierenfield said of B-Cycle. “We are very much in a learning and exploratory phase.”

CLARIFICATION: This story had been updated online to indicate that while the city and LimeBike have not had recent conversations about the company entering the Austin markets, officials with the city and the company did have a conference call in April.