Determining if your city is ready for the dockless-bikeshare revolution

Unlocking Spin bike with a smartphone

This article is excerpted and adapted from one originally published by Alta Planning + Design.

As the name suggests, dockless bikeshare does not require a docking station  —  an expense that sometimes limits the number of bikes a city can afford.

With dockless systems, bicycles can be parked within a defined district at a bike rack or along the sidewalk. Dockless bikes can be located and unlocked using a smartphone app.

Bikeshare originally gained prominence globally with station-based systems. And ridership has grown from 320,000 trips in 2010 to 28 million trips in 2016, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).

But dockless bikeshare, designed for shorter and more spontaneous trips, is likely the next wave we’ll see. While the cost of using traditional bikeshare for a single trip (typically, $7 per day) could be seen as a barrier to ridership, most dockless bikeshare models offer single trips for $1. Although $1 per ride isn’t great for multiple trips in one day, it is great for a one-way trip for a tourist, for short trips to meet friends, and to ride to a meeting.

Dockless bikeshare adds even more convenience for users who no longer need to worry about empty bikeshare stations at the front end of the trip, or full stations upon arrival. However, this convenience for users can be a problem for both system operators (who must rebalance bikes to meet demand) and cities (who must manage a potential clutter of bicycles on sidewalks already under pressure from competing uses). The wide, scattered nature of operations also poses drawbacks related to maintenance, bicycle durability, economic sustainability, and potential lack of visibility that established stations provide.

Screenshot of oBike’s credit system in Melbourne, Australia.

Also, misplacement of dockless bikes can be a real issue. To manage parking issues, cities and operators can institute incentives and disincentives as part of a regulatory framework. Several operators like oBike and LimeBike give credit points for returning bikes to a designated parking location.

Mobike, which operates more than five million bikes and has 100 million registered users (taking 25 million trips per day at peak times), encourages users to park at Mobike Preferred Locations and provides bike parking best practices on its website. The company also offers incentives for reporting bad parking practices.

Bikeshare disruption

Mobike Preferred Location and bike parking example

Early dockless bikeshare operators did not consult with cities, but rather distributed bicycles in places like Austin, Texas without permission (or even an early warning). Most operators now know they must work with cities to manage the launch and growth of a system. According to NACTO:

“Bike-share systems have a strong role to play in a city’s transportation network. But, by starting up without invitation or coordination, these companies have shown that they are not serious about providing bikes as a real mobility option for people. Instead, their actions suggest that they are more interested in media attention and a quick buyout. Such fly-by-night operations put the public at risk.”

While adding complexity, dockless bikeshare systems, such as JumpSpin, and LimeBike, pose both benefits and challenges.

Collaboration is key to success

Seattle, which suspended its first bikeshare system Pronto, is now working with Spin and LimeBike, two popular dockless systems that launched mid-2017, and Ofo, a third dockless system that just launched on August 18. Spin has worked with the City of San Francisco on a sequential series of launches to test and manage system growth. In Greensboro, N.C., LimeBike worked with the UNC-Greensboro first on campus and later with an expansion into the city. LimeBike is also working with a Business Improvement District in South Bend, Indiana.

Because of the added complexity, dockless bikeshare requires a planning approach that’s a win-win-win for users, cities, and operators. Below are six steps cities, towns, and university/corporate campuses can take to get started.

Dockless Bike Share Planning

1. Set program goals: A city or campus needs to review overall program goals for mobility and how dockless bikeshare fits into the overall system. For example, cities may want to prioritize equitable access, public health programs, or specific traffic-reduction goals.

2. Create a policy framework: A city needs to establish a regulatory framework. Seattle, for example, requires operators to obtain a permit that covers safety, parking, insurance requirements, operations, and data sharing with the city. Cities will need to review existing contracts with bikeshare and bike-rental companies.

Spin’s heat map of bike usage in downtown Seattle

3. Establish system boundaries: For system planning, most operators work with cities on boundaries for both testing pilots and program growth. Using geofencing technology, operators collect (and share) data that tracks usage, routes, system problems, and more. In fact, the sheer amount of data points to the need for carefully planning data collection, privacy, analysis, storage, and decision support. Hyper-local information about existing conditions, bike behavior, routes, weather, time of day when people are riding, and demographics can then inform route planning and infrastructure investments, as well as carbon reduction or economic activity related to bikeshare.

4. Focus on bike parking: In most cases, the greatest challenge is parking. All stakeholders need to establish, early on, that dockless does not mean users are able to leave bikes anywhere (an on-going problem as bikes are left in rivers and hanging in trees). In fact, dockless bikeshare is likely to spur expanded design and policy for bicycle parking and infrastructure overall.
Bike parking should typically be located in areas where users are likely to check out or return a bike, for example near transit stations, civic buildings, and entertainment venues. In the near term, cities can fast-track bicycle corrals and find more efficient design options close to bike lanes and trails. Over time, cities may replace on-street parking or work with building operators with excess parking.

Alternative approaches to physical bike racks may include using GPS geofences (like Social Bicycles) to create pseudo stations (discreet areas to park bikes) or painting rectangles on the ground to designate parking areas.

Bike parking solution by Alta Planning + Design

5. Integrate programs: In many cities, transportation requires owning a car; other options are either insufficient or simply not available. The integration of “new mobility,” mobility-on-demand models, and seamless transport apps will substantially increase the share of trips that are multimodal. Furthermore, the growth of “mobility as a service” (MaaS)  —  or private companies supplying transportation and transit as a service  —  will continue to blur the lines between private and public transport.

Cities will need to integrate dockless bikesharing into their transportation demand management and first/last mile programs as well as transit system plans. Cities with existing station-based systems may play host to both station and dockless bikeshare options.

Expanding mobility options with mobile technology

6. Continuously monitor, improve and innovate: Dockless bikeshare systems face a lot of challenges. For example, supplying enough staff to constantly rebalance bicycles may become economically infeasible. However, there may be possibilities for new mobile docking stations that allow rebalancing of many bikes at once. Using data to rebalance strategically will be key to success.

Another challenge is that the public may not tolerate a growing number of idle bicycles on sidewalks. To encourage proper bike parking, companies can offer incentives for users to place bicycles in preferred areas and discourage misplacement. There are also endless opportunities for encouragement programs to get more people to participate  —  from challenges and scavenger hunts to gamifying bike races (similar to Pokémon Go) or coordinating with local businesses around events — all of which can be planned and initiated using push notifications.

Is dockless bikeshare right for your community?

Dockless bikeshare has the potential to further stoke demand for bicycling, and in turn, for improved bicycle infrastructure. It also has the potential to help cities raise the profile of bicycling as a key element of the transportation portfolio.NACTO, again, notes:

“Bikeshare programs increase the visibility of cyclists, making riding safer for everyone. The risk of a bicyclist being struck by a motorist declines as the number of people biking increases. Appropriately scaled bikeshare systems can dramatically increase the total number of people on bikes in a city and help build political momentum for bike lanes.”

Increasing the visibility of bikes as a mode of transportation makes riding safer for everyone.

With good planning and supportive partnerships, cities can get off on the right foot (or pedal) for building docked or dockless systems that work for everyone.

Top photo by Ofo. Spin photo by Geek Wire. Mobike photo by Mobike. Mobility option inforgraphic by Atlanta Regional Walk.Bike.Thrive! 

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