The Second Bikeshare Invasion

As I was Just Riding Along last week, I noticed colorful new bikes on the streets of Washington, DC, they had names I did not recognize: LimeBike, MoBike and Spin. They were for the most part just sitting on corners and sidewalks, like art or some sort of clever marketing ploy. Over the past week, more and more have appeared, and now I see them everywhere: Dockless bikeshare has arrived in the capital city.

This is huge.

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It does not seem like it, but Capital Bikeshare has been around for seven years. Currently, the system has 450-ish bike docks and 4000-ish bikes, the red bikes with yellow highlights are incredibly commonplace sights in DC, they have become part of the visual and traffic landscape and for the overwhelmingly most part, have been good for everyone, all road users of all types.

Good for everyone because more bikes means safer roads. More bikes means drivers expect to see more bikes, which means drivers act like there are bikes everywhere. Driver speeds drop, rider confidence goes up, a pattern that feeds on itself recursively. Tourists hear DC is a great place to ride bikes, find out it is, then report on it back home. Locals go for a ride downtown at the weekend, then decide to try riding to work. Hardcore roadies and hardboiled commuters mixing with local leisure riders and inexperienced, slow and often clumsy bikeshare riders yields an unpredictable and ubiquitous road stew that forces drivers to proceed with caution. What may once have been an infrequent driver ‘hold up’ behind a DC cyclist now happens on every block. Cyclists are closer to ‘traffic’ than they have ever been in my years of urban riding.

Capital Bikeshare has created its own subculture, with its own norms and rituals. It is a dock-based system, so rides have defined endpoints. Rush hour and leisure hour patterns are established and well-known: In the morning, bikes migrate in predictable patterns, and reverse in the evening. On nice weekend nights after 11 pm, it is hard to find a bike anywhere downtown, as young revelers check them all out to move bar-to-bar and bar-to-home.

Sure, it is still plenty easy to find an asshole driver and never did the law or doing the right thing stop a driver from using his or her phone behind the wheel, but in all, DC has evolved into a seriously bike-friendly town.

Now let’s take it to a new level: Dockless bikeshare.

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Although dockless bikesharing existed before location-aware smartphones, it really was this technology, with its attendant maps and payment and communications standards that enabled it to go mainstream overnight. The process is simple: Find a dockless bikeshare bike. Download the required app, set up an account. Go through steps to start a ride. Ride. Stop. Get off the bike, park it someplace legal and lock it. End the ride, pay automatically.

The bikes sit where they were left until the next person comes by and needs to go for a ride. No worry on finding an open dock to park. Unmoored from docks as they are, they have the ability to fill in areas of the city that are not (yet) served by dock-based bikeshare.

Currently four (possibly six, depending on which reporting you read) dockless bikeshare firms have initiated operations in DC. Each has a permit for up to 400 bikes. That is a minimum of another 1600 bikes on DC streets, add CaBi’s 4000 and you are ready to round 6000 bikes that live permanently on the streets, existing only to take people from point A to point B.

And in a great example of progressive governance, the DC City Council has openly acknowledged that the city has no regulatory framework against which to judge success, compliance or whether they even have the rules of basic implementation of dockless bikeshare. So the city is allowing these four (or six) companies to run pilot programs with up to 400 bikes for six months to find out what works, what doesn’t, and how best to regulate and support businesses that lead directly to safer streets and healthier citizens and visitors.

The CEO of Silicon Valley-based LimeBike thinks DC could see 20,000 dockless bikes on the streets before hitting saturation. How I would love to see DC’s streets full of people on borrowed bikes, with more bikes on every corner, waiting for their next rider.

Image credit: By SounderBruce – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61416389

References:

The dockless bikeshare thing really crept up on me, one day there were none, then like a zombie apocalypse, they have multipled day by day over the past week. I went back and looked at the Washington Post, the area’s outlet of record, and found a steady stream of recent news:

19 Sept:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/dockless-bike-share-companies-race-to-washington/2017/09/19/a7e2c346-9a33-11e7-b569-3360011663b4_story.html

20 Sept:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/dr-gridlock/wp/2017/09/20/dockless-bikes-are-officially-here

22 Sept:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/dr-gridlock/wp/2017/09/22/we-rode-all-four-of-d-c-s-dockless-bike-share-so-you-wouldnt-have-to

2 Oct:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/capital-bikeshare-gears-up-for-another-expansion/2017/10/02/bcf81b4a-a2fe-11e7-ade1-76d061d56efa_story.html

3 Oct (yesterday):
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/dr-gridlock/wp/2017/10/03/limebike-ceo-envisions-as-many-as-20000-dockless-bikes-in-d-c

About Ben Folsom

Ben Folsom is a founding member of the Bike Commuter Cabal, a worldwide group of transport cyclists dedicated to protecting the rights of all road users and to encouraging people everywhere to ride more. Ben and his bikes live with his family in Alexandria, Virginia.