Wear: City girds for bevy of bike rental companies

April 08, 2018
Bike rental companies display their wares Wednesday outside the downtown Austin library, part of a forum the city put on as it crafts regulations for the nascent industry. Electric scooters were not part of the show Wednesday, but that soon changed. BEN WEAR / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Bikes and scooters don’t move all that fast. Even so, the city of Austin is having a devil of a time staying ahead of them.

Wednesday morning, Laura Dierenfield, who leads the city’s efforts to promote cycling and other “active transportation,” confidently kicked off a “dockless bike share community forum” at the city’s new downtown library, hosting 10 companies eager to provide free-range rental bikes on Austin streets. The forum, which included each company making a four-minute “shark tank” pitch for their flavor of bikes, was styled as a major step in the city’s effort to create a pilot program for the short-term bicycle rentals.

“We’re really focusing on bikes,” Dierenfield said at the start of the two-hour event. “I don’t see this pilot focusing on scooters.”

In fact, the companies, I was told later, were not even allowed to display electric scooters outside in the library’s courtyard alongside a dozen or so multihued bikes, even though LimeBike and other participants have begun to rent them elsewhere in the country.

Within 48 hours, like it or not, the city focus was suddenly very much on scooters. About 50 black-and-white electric scooters belonging to Bird Rides Inc., a 7-month-old California company, suddenly showed in South Congress, Zilker and the East Austin entertainment district. City officials scrambled to talk with the company’s representatives, and then said they will impound any of the scooters that sit in city right of way for two days or more.

However, the city Transportation Department also quickly decided to add scooters to its pilot discussion. Call this one a draw.

Notice that I said that Bird is 7 months old. In the frenzied world of two-wheeled, by-the-hour, drop-’em-where-you-stop transportation, that almost qualifies as a legacy business.

The city, which went through a couple of years of turmoil and expense with ride-hailing services, is trying not to stumble over a similar hornet’s nest with this latest disruption of how we’re used to getting around. And, if it possibly can, preserve Austin B-cycle, the dock-based bike rental company that it owns and has spent a good deal of local and federal money to create.

That might or might not be possible. Starting sometime this summer, after the city kicks off a dockless bike (and scooter) pilot authorized earlier this year by the Austin City Council, B-cycle’s 500 or so bikes will soon be outnumbered about 5-1 by LimeBikes, Ofos, MoBikes, Jumps and V Bikes, just to name a few — and, it appears, some scooters as well. And they will be much cheaper to rent than a B-cycle, which carries a $12 charge upfront for the first hour, plus $4 for each 30 minutes beyond that time.

The dockless bikes, meanwhile, generally cost just $1 for the first 30 minutes or an hour.

Never mind that the dockless bikes are, by and large, flimsier than B-cycle’s version and expendable by design, and the possible public nuisance when users leave them behind on sidewalks or in parks. Or that the business model for dockless bikes is a young, mysterious and unproven one, especially with a horde of competitors jumping in. Austin and other cities could find themselves in a year or two with a bunch of abandoned bikes from whichever companies don’t survive the shakeout, and a mortally wounded B-cycle left behind.

Sort of reminiscent of what has happened with ride-hailing and taxis, isn’t it?

“We are one of the most self-sufficient of bike-sharing operations” around the country, B-cycle director Elliott McFadden said last week, “and even we are a break-even deal.”

And that’s with the city and grants covering basically all of the capital costs for bikes and docking stations. The revenue coming just covers the ongoing operations costs.

McFadden, who is of course a very interested party in all of this, wondered if the dockless companies, in the mode of Facebook, might sell the information they collect on their customers. “Is there something we’re missing?” he said.

One thing that B-cycle is definitely missing, at least for now, are so-called e-assist bikes. Several of the companies at Wednesday’s event had these bikes, which will cost about double the rent of the regular dockless bikes but still far below what B-cycle charges for its human-power-only bikes. A person can pedal them normally, or switch to electric mode and have all or much of the work done by the motor.

So, we’re looking at dock-based bikes, dockless bikes, e-bikes and electric scooters. And the city is competing with a dozen or more still in-the-crib companies, even as it attempts to regulate all of this. No wonder they can’t keep up.

On another front …

Does the Road to the Final Four count as a transportation issue? For the next couple of hundred words, yes.

Statesman wiseguy Ken Herman tells me that I am impelled by the Unwritten Rules of the American Sisterhood and Brotherhood of American Newspaper Columnists (not a real thing) to inform you that I won the Statesman’s bracket in the recently completed NCAA men’s basketball championship. In doing so, my team — named Dan Issel’s Head Fake, something I’m ridiculously proud of for its insider obscurity — beat out 43 contestants in this newsroom. And, according to the ESPN website that hosted our competition, I finished in the 99.6th percentile of however many tens of thousands competed there in various bracket groups.

So, I’m kind of big deal.

Actually, what really happened is that I picked Villanova because a lot of people were doing that (I had never seen them play before mid-March) and Michigan because my daughter graduated from there (likewise a sight-unseen choice). Then a nun staged a coup on one quadrant of the bracket, meaning none of my competitors got any points out of those teams.

The real takeaway is that, as a transportation reporter, I apparently know a heck of a lot about basketball. Please direct all questions about dockless bikes, scooters and toll roads to Statesman sports columnists Kirk Bohls and Cedric Golden.