Bike Sharing Is Doomed to Fail in Most American Cities
Dallas' chaotic experiment in bike sharing is a case in point.
Image: Dallas Bike Mess/Instagram
In Dallas, where just 0.2 percent of the population commutes by bike, at least five competing dockless bike-share companies are flooding the city with more than 20,000 brightly colored bikes. Hardly anyone appears to like or use them—at least not properly.
Bikes are everywhere—in trees, tossed into Trinity River, piled up in random people’s yards. Someone cut one in half and bolted it to a telephone pole, according to Jared White, who works on alternative transit at the city’s department of transportation. “Some are sitting for days, and weeks, and months in some cases,” he told Motherboard over the phone. There’s even an Instagram account dedicated to documenting the chaos called Dallas Bike Mess.
It’s gotten so bad that City Hall recently told the companies to clean up, or it’ll clean up for them—and they may not like what the city does with their bikes.
Bike sharing is appealing for cities looking for a cheap, quick fix for air pollution and growing traffic congestion. Unlike the original Bixi/Citi Bike docked model, dockless shared bikes either lock to themselves, or to city infrastructure—meaning cities don’t have to devote precious public space to big-ass bike racks.
But this is what happens when cities open up to bike sharing with a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality, and it’s not just happening in Dallas: Bicycle graveyards, rampant vandalism, cluttered sidewalks, frustrated drivers, and sometimes hilarious displays of anti-bike vigilantism.
These companies would like us to believe they’re in it for the long haul, but there’s no way this many competitors can turn a profit.
Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings thinks he’s found a method to their madness: It’s survival of the most ubiquitous. “If you can overwhelm a market, you can own it, and force the other bike companies out,” he said on local morning radio in January.
“It’s a car culture historically and it takes more than getting a bike share in that community to change people’s minds”
Some of these transportation-as-a-service startups have got a lot of money and big names backing them. Beijing’s Ofo—which says it has 10 million bikes in 250 cities around the world, including Dallas—has raised $1.3 billion to date. LimeBike, which was founded in March of 2017, has already raised $62 million in venture capital from prestigious funders like Andreessen Horowitz. Even Uber is getting in on the bike-sharing game.
“We can launch a program in three to four weeks,” Caen Contee, a co-founder of LimeBike, told me in a phone interview. The company’s 2017 end-of-year report said there were 45,000 active riders using its system in Dallas since launching there in the summer, and Contee said LimeBike had 15,000 bikes in Dallas.
It’s no wonder, then, that Dallas is drowning in bikes. “They saw us as an untapped market,” said White, from the city’s department of transportation.
But these companies are so frenzied trying to shut out competitors that they’ve forgotten the true purpose of bike sharing: to make cycling a cheap, convenient, and greener alternative to driving.
“It’s a car culture historically and it takes more than getting a bike share in that community to change people’s minds,” Tim Ericson, CEO of bike share company Zagster (the maker of the Pace dockless bike system) said over the phone.
You can’t convert people to cycling just by dumping a bunch of bikes in a city and hoping riders catch on. That’s especially true with dockless bikes, which require downloading an app to unlock and pay for the ride. (Docked bike systems usually take physical credit cards.) Dallas’s geography—much like that of many US cities—is also a major barrier, said White: “We’re a sprawling region and the vast majority of people drive down here.”
It takes some planning to get a bike-share system right.
The city of Rochester, New York put together an extensive report in 2015 studying the feasibility of a bike-share system, which made recommendations about how to make the city more bike friendly. “Providing a core network of low-stress bikeways that connect various neighborhoods will encourage success, as comfort and safety is a large factor in people’s willingness to try bike share,” the report noted.
Zagster launched its Pace bike-share program in Rochester in the summer of 2017. “We partnered with the city to get it right,” said Ericson.
That meant putting the bikes in specific communities, working with local advocacy groups, and partnering up with the local public-transit authority to ensure station availability. The company is also working with the county to change rules that lay out where bikes can be locked up. “They have to have skin in the game to make sure they’re pushing it in the right areas,” Ericson continued.
Most of these companies don’t charge cities anything to operate on their territory and instead look to usage fees—usually about $1 per half-hour—to generate profits. That makes them attractive to cash-strapped cities, but it also makes their sustainability questionable.
LimeBike’s Contee said that although the company gets its bikes at cost, they retail for $2,500 each—meaning they’re still paying a pretty penny for the 34,000 bikes it currently owns across 45 locations. He said the company is not necessarily making a profit right now, but rather that it is focused on building ridership. They’re not alone in that strategy. The Economist recently reported that not even billion-dollar Ofo and competitor Mobike—which has raised $928 million since 2015—are profitable.
Back in Dallas, a subcommittee on the bike-sharing experiment will reconvene this month to evaluate its results. The city had originally taken a free-market approach to the project, allowing anyone to come in and operate as they saw fit—but it’s become clear that’s no longer the best option. “The next step will be some kind of regulation,” said White.
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