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How Cities Are Trying to Rein In the Scooter and Bike Share Craze

Profit-motivated mobility startups can’t be trusted to regulate themselves.

by Tracey Lindeman
May 22 2018, 3:00pm

In the first week of May, Austin city council pushed out emergency rules to manage the dockless bikes and scooters flooding its sidewalks and public spaces.

One rule in particular has been the subject of much consternation among operators: The lock-to caveat, which says all dockless bikes and scooters have to either be locked to a bike rack, or have “haptic technology that indicates to the user if they have parked in a designated, geo-fenced parking area.”

This comes at a time when cities around North America and abroad are trying to figure out how to handle the rapid proliferation of dockless bike and scooter share companies. These companies showed up on cities’ doorsteps overnight, to the consternation of citizens and city workers. It’s clear some best practices are needed to manage the deluge—and a new policy brief by the International Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) is hoping to set the ground rules.

Read More: Bike Sharing Is Doomed To Fail in Most American Cities

ITDP, a non-governmental organization based in New York City, surveyed the bikeshare systems of 15 cities on five continents. Its report concluded that dockless bikeshare flourishes in environments where regulation is embraced. According to ITDP, regulation includes integration with public transit, sharing data with cities, managing public space, protecting users, and dedicating city staff and resources to the project.

“Dockless bikeshare has the potential to do a lot of good. It has a lot of qualities and elements dock-based bike sharing doesn’t have,” Dana Yanocha, a co-author on the brief and a senior research associate at ITDP, told me on the phone.

In docked systems—i.e. New York City’s Citi Bike system Vélib’ in Paris—users must return a bike to a station; if the intended docking station is full, they have to roam around looking for an empty spot. These systems are easier to regulate because they’re usually the result of a city’s request for proposals.

Dockless bike (and scooter) share companies are a different breed. Because they’re designed to be self-locking, they can be dropped into a city overnight without prior permission—and that’s exactly what’s been happening in cities like Dallas–Fort Worth and San Francisco, thanks to oodles of venture capital. “They’re profit-motivated, and they really shouldn’t be regulating themselves,” Yanocha continued.

Back in Austin, Chinese bikeshare company Ofo told the Austin American-Statesman that the city’s “emergency rules make it nearly impossible to operate in the city.” Scooter and bike share company Lime (formerly LimeBike) similarly said: “The regulations put forth would severely limit Lime’s ability to serve the community.”

Declining to cooperate with Austin’s lock-to rules are part of a startup model for disruption that Uber defined when it rolled out its originally illegal UberX service: overwhelm the status quo until governments and incumbents bend to the will of the disruptor. Bike and scooter share companies are doing that by flooding markets with more two-wheelers than their populations and infrastructure can support.

“Any company that floods city streets with bikes or scooters without the expressed permission and cooperation of a city is signaling that they’re not a viable, long-term partner,” Tim Alborg, the director of public policy and government relations for bikeshare company Zagster, wrote in an email to Motherboard.

Zagster, the makers of the Pace bikeshare system, echoed some of the ITDP report’s findings—namely that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for shared mobility. “We take into account factors like the city’s public transit system, existing bike culture, current bike share programs (if any), and [other factors],” Alborg wrote.

Zagster—whose bikes feature built-in locks, incidentally—has also been a big proponent of lock-to rules since dockless bike sharing took off in 2017. In the company’s view, lock-to solves bike parking problems while also restoring order to the public right of way.

But lock-to isn’t the only way cities can, and should, regulate bike and scooter share. Fleet caps help protect cities from becoming the sites of market-share battles. Data-sharing policies help cities enforce the rules while better understanding the demand for biking infrastructure, such as bike lanes and transit integration. As for the thorny issue of parking, there’s a mix of options available.

“I really believe in hub locations in busy areas,” said Josh Squire, the founder and CEO of dockless bikeshare company CycleHop who in 1999 was awarded the first US patent for a docked bikeshare system. A “hub” could be a vehicle-parking spot converted to bike (or scooter) parking, he explained to me on the phone. Squire’s ideal scenario would be clearly marked hubs in busy areas to help contain the clutter, and self-locking in quieter neighborhoods.

Despite all the posturing in places like Austin, bike and scooter share companies will ultimately need city buy-in to successfully change people’s transportation habits—which, beyond making a few startup investors a bunch of money, is really the intended purpose here.

“It’s a matter of choice: do you, as a city, want to encourage two-wheeled transportation? If you do, you need to make space,” said Squire.