Although these headlines look like they were ripped from today’s internet, they’re actually from 2013. Five years ago this month, the U.S.’s largest bike-share system, Citi Bike, launched in New York City, where worries about having bikes “all over the place” sound very similar to concerns about dockless operators today.
While station-based bike share turned out to be an unmitigated success for the U.S., anxiety about the dockless revolution remains at a fever pitch, with cities fretting about operators offering artificially low pricing, riders blocking the right-of-way, and broken bikes ending up stacked into graveyards. But is this criticism warranted?
Each year the National Association for City Transportation Officials (NACTO) publishes a report on U.S. bike-share systems. This year’s report is the first to include dockless systems (although not e-scooters), and it reveals some surprising trends about where bike share might be headed.
The number of bike-share bicycles in the U.S. doubled in 2017, mostly thanks to dockless operators. NACTO’s data shows that by the end of the year, dockless bikes made up 44 percent of all bike-share bikes on the ground in cities.
However, even though overall ridership nationwide was up 25 percent over the previous year, the station-based bikes are still making more of the trips. Dockless bikes only represented 4 percent of all rides in 2017, although many of these systems opened throughout the year and therefore did not operate for the full 12 months. (Station-based data also includes “smart bikes” like those made by Social Bicycles, which have a locking mechanism but don’t have to be returned to a station.)
2018 will be an important year to see if ridership grows in pace with expansion plans. The big question is how cities can nurture a growing ecosystem of ever-changing mobility options without subverting the many benefits that traditional station-based bike-share programs have delivered for years.
Bike share is one of the great transportation success stories in the United States. In less than a decade since the first contemporary citywide system launched in Washington, D.C., in 2010 (there were more informal ones, or systems limited to college campuses before that), bike-sharing has quite utterly transformed American cities.
Aside from the obvious environmental, public health, and congestion benefits of replacing car trips with bike trips, bike-sharing has a safety record that is unmatched by any other public transit system. After over 123 million trips, according to NACTO data, only two rider deaths have been reported. Plus, there is growing evidence that the mere presence of a bike-share program can help a city reduce traffic fatalities overall.
But bike share’s exceptional safety record is not attributed to a specific design of the bikes—which are made by a handful of companies—or regulatory issues like helmet laws. It’s because as these systems were implemented, they were accompanied by policy decisions from city leaders and transportation engineers to ensure that cycling infrastructure improved to match their investments.
“Bike share’s strong ridership is a reflection of careful planning and coordination between cities and bike share program operators,” says Kate Fillin-Yeh, NACTO’s director of strategy, in its report.
In order to protect that important groundwork, new bike-share programs need to be regulated just like other public transit contractors, according to an Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) report that looked at 15 cities around the world with established station-based systems as well as dockless bike-share programs that had been around for several years.
“Dockless bikeshare has a reputation for being a ‘disruptor,’ but that’s not necessarily what people need,” says ITDP senior research associate Dana Yanocha, who wrote the policy brief. “The best transit innovations—especially those that are privately operated—offer riders convenient, affordable options for getting where they need to go. Local governments that have viewed dockless bikeshare as an extension of their transit systems and introduced some form of regulation have seen ridership flourish as a result.”
Treating bike share like transit means integrated payment systems and hubs near bus and rail stations; ITDP’s study cited Finland’s model as the gold standard. But it also means getting good ridership data—provided that dockless operators actually share it.
Dockless companies argue that because their bikes can track an entire trip via GPS, the data is more useful, since traditional station-based data only notes which station a bike travels to and from. (Smart bikes can also track entire trips.) “For city planners, it’s a dream scenario,” says Jordan Levine, head of northeast communications for Ofo, who says the company can provide bike data for smaller cities that might not be tracking these trips at all. “You can see just by looking at this information that this is how many people are taking this route. You can be sure you want to put in a protected bike lane here.”
How dockless companies share that data has become a struggle, similar to the way ride-hailing companies protect their data, as both cite privacy concerns. But there is evidence in NACTO’s study that riders are using dockless bikes differently.
While trips on station-based bikes follow general commuting trends, with peaks in the morning and evening, dockless bike trips spike in the evening hours and on the weekends, suggesting that these trips are for fun instead of work—which might denote that each system is fulfilling completely different needs.
That’s what LimeBike is trying to do, says Thomas Lord, the startup’s general manager for LA. Instead of a blanket approach taken by station-based bike share, LimeBike provides different options for Blue Line commuters in Watts than it does for students in California State University in Northridge. “Each neighborhood, incorporated city, and unincorporated area in the LA region can be vastly different, which is why we think it’s important to custom-design our dock-free program in a way that can accommodate their differences.”
The nimbleness of dockless systems make them good candidates for providing choices in communities with few transit options. But just placing bikes in a neighborhood doesn't mean the right riders get access.
According to the NACTO report, about a third of U.S. station-based bike-share systems offer subsidized passes for lower-income riders. Private operators may be able to deploy dockless bikes in underserved communities, but they need to work closely with cities to offer discounted rides to the people who need them most.
Through extensive local outreach, Philadelphia’s Indego bike share has leveraged grant money to offer discounts to low-income families. “Bike share is more than just putting bikes on streets,” says Mike Carroll, deputy managing director of Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems. “We all know that expanding mobility for diverse populations is important, but it is also profound how effective bike share can be in leveraging community-based civic engagement”
There are also concerns about leaving maintenance to a private operator and its gig-economy workers with no regulatory oversight to repair and rebalance bikes. After Seattle canceled its station-based bike system, Pronto, due to low ridership, the city replaced it with a six-month pilot program of all-dockless providers (Lime, Spin, and Ofo).
However, when Portland, Oregon’s transportation department conducted an independent audit of Seattle’s 9,400 bikes late last year, the study’s authors found only 44 percent of bikes on streets were free of maintenance issues. In fact, a full 30 percent of bikes had multiple issues or were deemed unrideable. And 5 percent of bikes encountered were laying on the ground.
Some cities are finally getting ahead of the dockless invasion in an effort to regulate the new and quickly changing systems—and to protect the safety of riders. LA’s Department of Transportation recently placed its dockless standards on GitHub, with reporting metrics for maintenance and incentives for deploying in underserved areas. Austin carved out space on streets for dockless parking zones and created guidelines for how to share data. A handful of cities are pioneering lock-to laws, meaning that some systems will need to add locking mechanisms or to pivot to “smart bikes” that have locks already incorporated.
And so far, in U.S. cities where multiple systems do coexist, all bike-share systems seem to be thriving. Alex Baca, a former general manager for Cleveland’s bike share system, wrote an exhaustive bike-share explainer for CityLab in which she noted that the country’s most established bike share system, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare, wasn’t being cannibalized after four months of competition with dockless operators.
“In other words, access to bike share seems to feed a demand for more bike share,” she says, “and the easiest way to achieve that in more cities is with dockless equipment, or a mix of the two models.”
But even a dockless bike on every corner won’t fix what has become the biggest problem plaguing American ridership, says Peter Hoban of Bicycle Transit Systems, which manages station-based bike share programs in several cities. “We as a bike-share industry are so new and there’s so much we’re still learning, but there’s one thing we know about the people who don’t ride bike share—it’s because they don’t feel safe,” he says. “This technology will not fix that—the dockless model is not solving a problem as far as getting people to ride.”
Much of that sentiment is due to a lack of safety infrastructure, which goes back to the original concern that dockless operators must work closely with cities to ensure that policy stays in step with their expansions.
However, another technology that dockless is proving adept at delivering to potential riders might help even more: The proliferation of e-bikes—which use battery-powered “electric-assist” technology to boost pedaling power. Recent studies have shown that e-bikes are more likely to replace a car trip than a regular bike and allow riders (especially women) to travel longer distances.
This isn’t just a dockless innovation—San Francisco’s station-based Ford GoBike, operated by Motivate, recently added 250 e-bikes to its fleet—but it does say a great deal about how quickly the bike-share landscape is changing. Just last week, Superpedestrian, the startup that makes an electric-assist device named the Copenhagen Wheel, received $16.5 million in funding to develop new bike share solutions. Most bike share operators are considering adding electric-assist and smart bikes to their offerings—so there may not even be much difference between the two systems for much longer.
Cities will also start to see new types of bike-share bikes that serve a range of abilities, known as adaptive bikes. Detroit’s MoGo is rolling out 13 new bikes that include tricycle, tandem, and cargo configurations. The startup Zagster, which uses locking systems, is committed to including three different types of bikes as part of its standard rental fleet, says Tim Alborg, Zagster’s head of policy. “We’re really excited about being pioneers in the bike-share industry as part of including adaptive bikes and not just creating a different set for people with disabilities,” he says. “We want to bring bike sharing to as wide of a demographic as possible.”
Bike-sharing systems have proved themselves as essential investments that reach beyond transportation, which is why more cities should work to regulate them like a public service. As the early data shows, cities need not fear dockless operators—but officials have to make sure that more options mean more access for everyone.
New York City officials chose Citi Bike’s five-year anniversary week to announce that dockless bike-sharing is coming to the city this summer, launching in boroughs not well-served by existing bike share. In the U.S. city with the largest station-based system and the most comprehensive cycling infrastructure already in place, bike share ridership might hit some of its biggest numbers yet.