Infrastructure can save an industry led astray by dockless bike design.

A well-integrated public bike share station in Lille, France

Bike shares continue to be an emerging market in the United States. They originally broke out in the late 90’s and succeeded in heavy metropolitan areas. While bicyclist communities made greater use of U.S. bike paths, city-ways, and roadways, the surrounding bicycle infrastructure had yet to catch up. Now bike shares are kind of almost here, except for all the red tape they have to cross to get moving.

The biggest hold up is distrust that bike shares will keep cities clean. Past culprits have been bike share companies that use dockless bikes.  They’re strongly resisted by city councils who have seen the messes dockless bikes cause in host cities. Two different companies had their bike-share proposals rejected recently in San Francisco, Seattle, and the hometown of Ground Control Systems in Sacramento, CA.

Multiple new bike share start-up companies are being funded to deploy and gain this still early market. Each is attempting to scale all at once, finding their footing in an early but immediately competitive environment. The race is to innovate and market to customers. For many companies, that has meant a strategy of making bikes over-available; producing bikes in large quantities, rapidly, for huge deployments across new U.S. bike-share programs.

Shared bikes that can be picked up and dropped off with no designated parking stations are a very recent idea. Pushing them out has had disastrous results where they have been deployed.

Over-produced and misused

Throughout 2017, multiple bike share companies propagated in waves across China. The three largest to emerge in that year, Mobike, Ofo, and the just recently-defunct Bluegogo, had enormous roll-outs. They deployed bikes in the thousands. The bikes were cheap, in large quantities, and used by customers who were allowed to discard their rides however they cared.

One industry report, from Research and Markets at the end of that year spelled it out the outcomes;

“While bringing convenience for residents, the industry is faced with a number of problems. Due to the non-docking nature of bicycle sharing, many users park bike wherever they want — even on motor lanes or pedestrian lanes. In many places, traffic police have detained sharing bicycles because of illegal parking. In addition, these bikes are also being vandalized and stolen.” (Research Report on China Bicycle Sharing Industry, 2017–2021)

Quickly thought the latter half of 2017, multicolored piles of bikes littered communities, stacked onto sidewalks, and spilled over onto roadways. The situation was an extreme trade-off. Dockless bike shares gave up corporate accountability for commercial eagerness to grow a mobile user base.

Image: SILENTHILL/IMAGINECHINA

A disaster unfolds in the background of growth

Funding and development for bike shares reached expansion into the United States. Deals took place throughout 2017, while a bike disaster in China was taking place. New start-ups moved over to cities like D.C., Dallas, TX, and Seattle, WA. The same venture capitalist who took advantage of Chinese markets got behind most of these efforts.

The dockless model was set in place in the early stages of development. The stationless phone-operated system established itself as the most innovative design to copy. However, not for innovation: app-enabled access benefited the tech giants more than cities. It seemed as is if the tech giants who backed these bike -share programs were more interested in getting bike-share users to jump onto their mobile app. The developments were not intended to be convenient and sustainable for  U.S. communities.

These bike share companies came as a detriment to the municipal transportation system worked ahead of. Forgoing city regulations, companies decided to sell and deploy faster by foregoing city regulations infrastructure investment.

How the scheme played out back in China is now well known. Over-production and lack of accountability for the bike share industry in China led to too many dockless bikes and insufficient demand.

Chinese government officials ultimately fined companies and created regulations to demand the multitudes of bikes be swept from city roadways and community areas. What resulted were enormous sweeps of bikes collected into landfill piles, subsequently being referred to as “bicycle graveyards” (more images in link).

China’s dockless disaster creeps into the U.S.

As the visible consequences flooded social media, November 2017 also saw U.S. bike start-ups like Limebike establish their presence in D.C., while Mobike debuted in Dallas, TX.

Granted, the scales of bike fleets were much smaller than in cities like Shanghai. However the consequences of dock free bikes that could be picked and taken anywhere manifested in the U.S. in their own way.

a screengrab from r/washingtondc, posted November 2017 featuring Limebike

As famous as China bicycle graveyards are to the world now, citizens of other bike share cities have their own window on how dock-less bikes have played out closer to home. They’ve shown themselves to be a menace for communities (DC), misdirecting its users to unusual places where there are no bikes to be found (Seattle), and downright making the public pessimistic toward an entire industry (Dallas) (Scottsdale). One farther-reaching breakdown from the Guardian reads;

In the UK bikes have been hacked, vandalized and thrown on railway tracks. In Australia dumped bikes have been mangled into pavement blocking sculptures — perhaps in a homage to technology’s promise of “creative destruction”

as does one more testimonial from England;

There are Mobikes in the canal, Mobikes in bins and I am fed up with following the app to a residential street where there is clearly a Mobike stashed in someone’s garden. On launch day, the Chinese designer told me the bikes were basically indestructible and should last four years without maintenance. It took a matter of hours before local scallies worked out how to disable the GPS trackers and smash off the back wheel locks.

Most damning has been the responses of cities in the aftermath of dock-less deployments. From Curbed;

“The problem is when companies come in with no respect for regulations, and questionable quality,” Heath Maddox, a planner and project manager for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, “… Nobody is against the idea of stationless bike-sharing. They’re against rogue bike-sharing that works against local authorities and isn’t safe for the public.”

So what will it take to make it right?

A lesson from history

The short, recent history of bike shares reflects an industry so far plagued by their ulterior intentions. Their success may come from refocusing on what they are meant to be, an accessible and sustainable transit system. From that perspectives, its future may share a path that the histories of other city transit systems have seen. In each, it was cities who have also had to shape themselves by the ways we got around them.

With the advent of the automobile in modern America, drivers weren’t without the support of roads and parking lots, at least not for long. Cars boomed, and over the last 60 years, like shared bicycles today, they’ve become much more accessible. That accessibility brought in the demand for car parking spaces. Soon, cities and towns required developers to plan for parking along with their buildings. What was established became known as mandatory parking minimums.

What it meant back then as it still does now, as simply put by Vox, “parking has to be included if the building is going to be built”. Cars do not function in cities with steering locks alone and neither will free floating bicycles.

Bringing accountability back into the equation: Infrastructure

While bike share start-ups overlook one important half of a transit system — places to securely drop-off and reliably pick-up bikes — solutions are not difficult to find.

Bicycles are small units. For the same reason they have been vandalized and carried off, they can be highly accommodated by structures minuscule compared to parking lots. NYC’s Citibike found its niche and gained the support to distribute stations throughout lower Manhattan and surround areas

Early bike shares took advantage of what bike infrastructure offered its customers. So New York bike shares operated its system, as did Europe in its first wide implementation, with pay and parking infrastructure. It arose in conjunction with (not before) the bikes that were brought out to the public.

As Japan now proceeds with caution integrating its own bike share, company officials are being careful to tie-up with local retailers to provide designated parking spaces. Bike parking spaces have emerged as crucial for accountability, as much as accessibility has been for growth. As a founder Chinese bike-sharing giant Ofo put it, “ Ultimately, the balance is somewhere in between.”

One of the first bike lanes in the nation in Davis, CA. The town today consistently tops bicycle-friendly and sustainable lists for its city as well as its local University of California. Image Source: Davis Enterprise

True innovation

The town of Davis, California was the first in the nation to invest in bicycle lanes. It was a battle against an old view by a city council establishment and a bold new vision for a college town. The investment in bike infrastructure was a commitment to the sustainability, bikes, and the cities they operated in. Continued deployment of station-less bikes today demonstrates a rush to get a user-base regardless of how the situation actually unfolds on the ground. Dock-less bikes may be a short-term play for data and quick profit, but the lack of commitment to the cities they operate in has hit the wall. Long-term success requires infrastructure, whether its seen as too progressive or a challenge to implement projects, it is what has worked.

Now as bike shares move into new places as plans are made for mid-2018, investors and cities are proceeding with caution. For roll-outs taking place in Japan, additional caution comes being liable for bad PR. In new U.S. markets like San Francisco, city regulators are implementing evaluation periods, allowing bike shares to come in on a per-permit basis. They have started to slowly issue these permits to eager start-ups starting January 2018 but not without stringent requirements on their operations. For bike shares this year, it will be a slow stagger into new markets.

As cities continue to experiment, models will be tried, some will fall by the wayside, and some communities may suffer from careless attempts. However, some will succeed and continue to set a standard for how to operate in a range of diverse layout and functions cites have to offer. Much like bike lanes were an investment to create sustainable cities, a smaller scale investment to establish diverse parking infrastructure will do the same.

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  1. Optimizing Dockless Bikeshare for Cities - Institute for Transportation and Development Policy

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