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Dockless Bikes and Scooters: The Rise of Micro-Mobility

By Jake Varn

Monday, May 21, 2018

Within the past year, a new transit trend has emerged, with a colorful collection of bikes and electric scooters dotting streets and sidewalks across the country.  

Many cities in the United States have been operating bikeshare systems for the past decade, with the common model of having stations scattered across the city for users to rent and return bikes. By 2014, 38 cities had created a bikeshare system to varying degrees of success. But unlike their docked counterparts, the newest wave of bikes—and now electric scooters too—are dockless. First catching on in China in 2014, the dockless approach relies on users using an app to locate a GPS-equipped bike or scooter nearby. After scanning a code, they can then pay as little as $1 to unlock, ride, and park anywhere they want.  

Dockless bike and scooter companies do have a few rules for riders: wear a helmet, park legally, abide by all laws, and so on. However, there is little to no enforcement on the company side, and complaints continue to roll in of bikes blocking walkways, or even in several strange cases, haphazardly dangling from trees and lampposts. Despite the opposition, dockless bikes and scooters are gaining popularity by providing a form of affordable transportation or “micro-mobility” that people and cities alike have long sought.

Advancements in technology and data sharing are transforming how people interact with infrastructure. Uber and Lyft ride-hailing have been a massive disruption to transportation systems, with adjustments still being made today. If dockless bikes and scooters can sustain their popularity and utility, while addressing public safety concerns, they have the potential to have an equally transformative impact.  

I Want to Ride My Bicycle (and Scooter) 

On the universally positive side, the dockless trend is providing mostly healthy, affordable, and environmentally friendly transit options. As Robin Chase, the cofounder of ZipCar, told the Boston Globe, “Every single mile that is diverted from car travel to walking, biking, or transit is a social gain. Dockless bikes are proving to be a very low-cost, small-footprint, and low-emission solution to moving people around a city. Biking also enhances public health—and given the current rates of obesity in the U.S., this is a benefit to be taken very seriously.” 

Dockless bikes and scooters can also present an elegant solution to the “last-mile” problem, the complicated and costly challenge of connecting users directly to their final destination, or starting point. In the District of Columbia, 81.2 percent of users of the aggregating app “Transit” had at least one dockless bike available within a quarter-mile, compared to 72.1 percent of users that had a docked bike available. 

If dockless bikes and scooters can sustain their popularity and utility, while addressing public safety concerns, they have the potential to have a transformative impact.  

The sheer flexibility and intuitive nature of the dockless approach appears to also be addressing a frequent criticism of “first-generation” bikeshare systems: a lack of access for historically underserved communities. The placement and density of bike stations in several docked bikeshare systems have been criticized for perpetuating “redlining”—policies that result in unequal or limited access to services in disadvantaged, minority communities. Though demographic data has so far gone uncollected, as CityLab reported, anecdotal observations of bike advocates and riders indicate that dockless bikes are creating a more diverse transit ecosystem.  

Additionally, unlike the relative monopolies of Uber and Lyft, there are currently a flood of competing companies that provide dockless bike or scooter services, including Ofo, Lime, Mobike, JUMP, Spin, Skip, and Bird, to name a few. This high degree of private competition benefits both the general public, seeking the best service, and to public officials, as they have more leverage when attempting to fairly regulate the nascent industry.  

However, as this new form of micro-mobility continues to grow, so will its inherent challenges. From access to user data to safety concerns, there is a lengthy list of questions that state, local, and perhaps, federal officials will need to answer.

Tap the Brakes  

Usage and Data 

A survey in Boston found that 40 percent of Uber or Lyft riders would have otherwise taken public transportation. Similarly, the user base for dockless bikes and scooters is likely to overlap with public transit riders. A report from the dockless bike company Mobike claimed that, within one year, bike-sharing doubled the percentage of bicycle riders in China. If those users are being pulled away from buses and subways, public transit agencies may face unexpected declines in revenue. For financially troubled or aging transit systems, declining ridership could further jeopardize their operations. However, by both helping to close the last-mile gap and changing commuting habits, dockless bikes and scooters could also be a complementary service that promotes the use of traditional transit options. Dockless bikes could directly increase the number of people that see public transit as a viable commuting and travel option, due to the flexibility offered by dockless bikes. Or in other words, (potentially) the rising tide lifts all transits.

Further complicating the decisions for local officials, city budgets have grown to rely on a steady stream of parking and ticketing revenue. In 2016, the 25 largest cities in the United States collected nearly $5 billion in parking or driving-related activities. Smaller cities can also rely heavily on parking fees, with some reporting up to 59 percent of their total budget supplied by a combination of parking fees and ticketing violations. If drivers are using dockless bikes instead of their cars, cities will need to find new sources to replace the lost revenue. 

Data on where and when people are using dockless bikes and scooters, along with the routes they are taking, is potentially invaluable information for local officials seeking to optimize their services. However, actually getting their hands on the data will be an entirely different challenge as private companies may claim it to be proprietary. In fact, accessing data from car-sharing companies has proven notoriously difficult for cities. It remains to be seen if data sharing agreements can be more commonplace for continued micro-mobility services. Fortunately, several cities are already attempting to gain data access. Through a unique partnership with the University of Washington, the Seattle’s dockless pilot program could yield new information on trip data and vendor compliance.

Safety 

By and large, modern cities have been designed with one transportation option in mind: driving a car. With sidewalks reserved for pedestrians, bikes (and usually scooters) are expected to use roads or bike lanes. However, cities have historically done a poor job making streets a safe environment for anything that isn’t a car. The use of designated bike lanes is increasing, but keeping even those lanes safe has been a challenge. Recent #MakeTheLane protests have created human-chain barriers to protect bike lanes from cars and other obstructions. Without a safe roadway, bike and scooter riders will often seek safe passage by riding on sidewalks, disrupting and potentially endangering pedestrians.  

Affordability and Access 

Currently, a third of all bikeshare systems offer discounted rates or passes for low-income users. Though dockless bikes and scooters are seen as one of the most affordable and accessible transit options available, they still have two significant barriers of entry: a bank account and a smart-phone. As of 2015, 7 percent of households in the United States were unbanked, and as of 2016, 23 percent of adult Americans did not own a smart phone. Keeping these access barriers in mind will be essential to ensuring that affordable options are available to all. 

With vehicle congestion increasing in cities, partially as a direct result of Uber and Lyft, both docked and dockless riders alike will face an increasingly hazardous roadway. And perhaps due to the ad hoc nature of the dockless trend, helmets among bikeshare riders have been a rare sight. How cities actively promote safety, both in terms of personal safety and creating safer roadways, remains to be seen.  

Hop Off  

While this will largely remain a localized issue, federal policymakers have long prioritized reducing congestion on roads and highways to improve safety and freight movement. As such, new transit options, including micro-mobility options, could be an important part of a larger federal strategy to improve our nation’s infrastructure and economic competitiveness. The federal government could also be a valuable resource to cities by monitoring the adoption of micro-mobility services and providing guidance on the best practices for cities considering them for the first time. 

Taking lessons from growing pains that emerged with Uber and Lyft, cities and states are already beginning to debate the proper regulatory framework to guide the dockless trend. With over a dozen cities cautiously allowing companies to provide limited services through pilot programs, continuing to assess and address the issues surrounding data, safety, and access will be critical as more dockless bikes and scooters come online.