As anyone familiar with the visually arresting/disturbing Dallas bike sharing battles can attest, the road to a utopian-sounding world of low-cost, green, accessible transportation is hardly a smooth one.
Dallas is not the only city to have problems establishing a dockless bikeshare program—though, as always, it’s one of the most entertaining (and, surprisingly, has the largest fleet of free-range bikes in the country). Cities nationwide are seeing an influx of businesses introducing new stationless bikeshare systems. Like Austin’s B-Cycle program, the new model allows users to rent bikes on the street to get around town, but (kind of like Car2Go), the bikes don’t have fixed docks, or stations. Instead, riders check out bikes with an app (also used to find nearby bikes) and check them back in when and where their trips end.
As one might imagine, this kind of system has its pitfalls, the primary one being that users tend to park their bikes anywhere they please, including on sidewalks and other pathways, roads, drainage ditches, and so on (but mostly sidewalks). The ensuing blockage can, in turn, lead to fierce backlash that includes vandalism conducted in an often highly artistic but also highly destructive manner.
While San Francisco startup Spin and Beijing-based Ofo introduced the concept to Austin during SXSW 2017 (on a dubiously legal basis at best, according to local NBC affiliate KXAN), the city has yet to get a handle on how to allow dockless bikesharing on a permanent basis.
The City Council plans to take up the matter at its Thursday meeting with the discussion of a resolution to introduce a pilot program for privately owned dockless bikesharing companies. Last Wednesday, the city held a dockless bikeshare community forum at Austin’s Central Library to get ahead of the matter and quickly learned that bicycles are not the only vehicles to be considered in the leave-it-where-you-will conundrum.
While the forum was planned to include Shark Tank-style pitches from 10 bicycle companies, according to a Sunday story by the Austin American-Statesman’s Ben Wear, electric scooters were not allowed, despite the fact that the vehicles (we’re talking kick-style scooters, not Vespas) have almost identical pros and cons when it comes to citywide dockless sharing systems, and many bikesharing companies offer both.
It’s important to keep in mind that the city is looking to regulate businesses with vehicles that will likely not only outnumber its docked B-Cycles, but will drastically undercut that program’s prices. Right now, Wear notes, a B-Cycle charges $12 for the first hour of use and $4 for each additional half hour; dockless bikes, in contrast, usually cost $1 for the first 30 minutes or an hour (and are free on a few university campuses).
On Friday, Bird RIdes launched approximately 50 of its dockless electric scooters on Austin streets (primarily in East and South Austin) without permission from the city, according to Wear. (Bird announced this move in a Thursday press release, which also notes that it recently made a “Save Our Sidewalks” pledge to pick up all its vehicles nightly.) Wear wrote that, while the city issued a statement that it will impound any of the scooters that are in a city right of way for two days or more, the transportation department also added scooters to its discussion of a pilot program shortly thereafter.
Bird also issued a statement on Friday, noting that it is “now directing Bird riders in Austin to park Birds on the street instead of on sidewalks where bikes and similar vehicles usually park” and accepting the city’s invitation to help in the development of a pilot program that includes dockless electric scooters.