Trip Data Deflates the Dockless Bike-Share Hype

Dockless bike-share services carried just 4 percent of all American bike-share trips in 2017, according to estimates from NACTO, despite accounting for 44 percent of the nation's total bike-share fleet.

Chart via NACTO
Chart via NACTO

Dockless bike-share burst onto the scene in American cities last year, with lots of hype about “disrupting” urban transportation.

While there’s been no shortage of stories about the untidiness of dockless bike-share, information about how useful the new systems are has been hard to come by.

A new report from the National Association of City Transportation Officials sheds some light on the situation, and so far the performance of the dockless bike-share systems is underwhelming.

1. Dockless bike-share is growing fast, but it’s not getting much use.

Dockless bike-share companies added 44,000 bikes to American streets in 2017, according to NACTO, compared to 14,000 bikes for station-based systems. In some cities, notably Seattle and Dallas, the scale of dockless bike-share rivals or exceeds the largest station-based bike-share networks in cities like New York and Chicago.

But looking at ridership paints a different picture. Dockless bike-share carried just 4 percent of all bike-share trips in 2017, according to NACTO’s estimates, despite accounting for 44 percent of all shared bikes. On a per-bike basis, station-based systems yielded an average of 1.7 rides per day, compared to 0.3 rides per day for dockless systems.

One qualification: Dockless bike-share companies still don’t make much trip data available. NACTO compiled data on the number of trips when companies made it available. In other cases, companies only shared total mileage, and NACTO extrapolated the number of trips from that.

Keep in mind that the phrase “dockless bike-share” doesn’t capture what distinguishes the new wave of bike-share companies very well. Yes, their systems all operate without stations. But a business model that relies on cheap equipment and low maintenance costs also sets them apart.

It’s possible to provide dockless systems that also have well-built equipment, reliable maintenance, and operations that don’t skimp on rebalancing — and maybe systems like that will get more use. We just haven’t seen one yet, at least not at scale.

Dockless bikes -- 44,000 of them -- are now in 25 U.S. cities. But ridership numbers have not been stellar. Photo: NACTO
Dockless bikes — 44,000 of them — are now in 25 U.S. cities. But ridership has been low. Photo: NACTO

2. Large station-based bike-share systems account for an overwhelming majority of trips

Overall bike-share ridership grew 25 percent last year, but only a few cities have bike-share networks that are genuinely useful for transportation. In most places, bike-share networks — whether station-based or dockless — remain skimpy.

Most bike-share trips are still concentrated in four large cities with station-based systems. Together, New York’s Citi Bike, Chicago’s Divvy, Washington’s Capital Bikeshare, and Boston’s Hubway accounted for 74 percent of all American bike-share trips in 2017.

One other system that did see significant growth was Philadelphia’s Indego, which increased ridership 84 percent. Indego is one of several systems operated in partnership with city governments that have been offering discounted memberships to low-income subscribers.

3. Low ridership could spell bigger problems for dockless bike-share

So far, the ridership numbers for dockless bike-share are not exactly reassuring for the long-term viability of the firms, NACTO says. Without stronger uptake, the companies may fade away as quickly as they appeared. Even in China, where dockless bike-share systems do account for a large number of trips, the industry is undergoing convulsions, with high-profile bankruptcies provoking questions about the long-term sustainability of the business model.

  • NYC skews ridership in one direction, and Dallas in the other direction. I havent read the report yet, but I wonder how they classify hybrid systems like Portland, Santa Monica, and Hoboken, where you are encouraged to use stations, but dont have to, as the lock is built into the bike.

  • Sean

    lol @ Angie.

    When ridership on light rail, heavy rail and other transit is low and falling she sounds the alarm that it needs our help, it needs buckets of taxpayer cash, it’s not really a problem, etc etc. “All is well!”
    When a still-in-the-crib industry hasn’t toppled a decade-old form of transport within a year she crows about it.
    Goofy AF.

  • Greg Costikyan

    Philly’s system is Indego, not Indigo (Inde as in Independence).

  • It’s not a question of “toppling.” The new entrants have Seattle and Dallas to themselves, with several thousand bikes on the street, and can’t manage to generate much use.

  • Sean

    It’s a year into a trial period. Traditional docked bike share took forever to ramp up. So did Uber. So did any transit option.
    I’m just saying… I can’t seem to find any articles on Streetsblog declaring say, DC’s Streetcar a failure (it is) after a single year for example. Most cities have just gotten started this year, like DC for example. And at least here it appears to be a resounding success esp. in underserved areas.

  • Angie again grabs the headline with a light and questionable reading of the report. First, flaws in the report: Many dockless rolled out during 2017, so comparing them to established dock systems is questionable; the assumption that non-commute is recreational is false, but trip-replacement is better measure not addressed; lumping dock-optional SoBi in with dockless doesn’t make sense; dockless systems are serving less dense areas and would expect lower ridership. Then the post: the report could just as easily justify the headline: station systems show little growth, except for NYC CitiBike.

  • Sean

    lol, the first one is over three years ago.
    The 2nd one appears to blame voters and contractors, not the project itself.

  • Jason

    “Large station-based bike-share systems account for an overwhelming majority of trips”

    Or,

    “Bike-share systems which account for an overwhelming majority of bike-share availability account for an overwhelming majority of trips”

    Go figure.

  • Docked bikeshare failed in Seattle because of their mandatory helmet law. I dont think that changed. I dont think anyone would put Dallas on a “places good for biking” list. Well, unless your only other option is Houston

  • Stvr

    This is the first article on SB that makes me wonder if someone paid for it.

  • FuckTrump

    All of the charts in the world won’t change the fact that dock-less bikes are far more convenient.

  • SDGreg

    Docked bikeshare has been available for a few years in San Diego. But I’ve hardly ever seen anyone using it, probably because it’s both expensive and inconvenient. In the few months that dockless bikeshare has been available, I’ve seen far more people using it than I ever saw using docked bikeshare.

  • Frank Kotter

    Dockless Deutsche Bahn bikes have existed in dozens of German cities for the past 20 years. They sit there, unused, with a telephone number written on the side.

    Docked bike systems like ‘next bike’ which are only just getting going, are booming.

  • Guy Ross

    From that pot of money municipal bike share systems are throwing off? If you want to get conspiratorial, at least make it plausible.

  • Guy Ross

    Not sure how you missed this at the header…. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5a6f7ebde3af9600908bed4f4bc7067efb4f0aafc68d2a08b2ea51a5c9809a6e.gif

    So, anyway, here it is again. Your ‘overwhelming majority of bike share availability’ is 6 percentage points from parity?

  • Kenny Easwaran

    While I admittedly haven’t tried biking around Dallas yet, Houston’s bayou greenways and downtown grid are both pretty good.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    This seems like a needlessly partisan post in the debate about bikeshare systems. I don’t think any of the dockless systems existed in the first half of 2017, and the 44,000 bikes certainly weren’t all available during most of the months of the year. In many cities the bikes were only available for a couple months before winter weather put a damper on bike use of all sorts. It would be useful to have some more head-to-head comparisons of systems that were of similar order of magnitude available in the same city at the same time, though I don’t know that any such comparisons exist.

    Are there any individual cities where dockless bikes get more use than dock-based bikeshare, despite existence of both? Anecdotally, I would be very surprised if San Diego weren’t on that list, given what I saw when visiting a few weeks ago. And many of the dockless bikeshare systems exist in smaller cities now too (I’ve been using them in College Station, TX for a few weeks now!)

  • Jason

    Total number of bikes in the entire country isn’t exactly a useful way of looking at it.

    From further down, “44,000 [dockless bikes] are now in 25 U.S. cities”.

    Additionally, “Together, New York’s Citi Bike, Chicago’s Divvy, Washington’s Capital
    Bikeshare, and Boston’s Hubway accounted for 74 percent of all American
    bike-share trips in 2017.”

    Naively assuming those 44k dockless bikes are evenly distributed, that’s 1760 dockless bikes per city. Meanwhile, Citi Bike for instance has 12,000 bikes.

    Availability in a given city is more useful information than how many bikes are in the entire country.

  • SFnative74

    Plus Seattle is a tough place to ride with the hills. For many trips, hills are unavoidable and bike share bikes are super heavy. My experience in Seattle with bike share was painful. San Francisco has hills but key crosstown routes go around the hills. Seattle’s topography is more challenging, imo.

  • SFnative74

    I was thinking the same thing – NYC’s Citibike is huge and really popular. If NYC had a dockless system instead, I’m sure it would be huge and really popular.

  • Kevin M

    You could look at the map, which shows those cities as purple for dock-based. There is also an orange color for hybrid, but not many examples.

  • Kevin M

    I’m surprised at how antagonistic the comments here are, though the critiques are at least partially fair. I don’t think this data should be all that surprising, and I don’t think it’s going to change all that much even when we get a full year of dockless system “operation”. Places with high demand for bike share generally have the dock-based systems in place already and are going to continue to dominate trips; the most interesting stuff is on the fringes.

    Like another commenter, I’m most interested in comparing Seattle before-and-after, or San Diego, or other cities where the two types are most directly competing. Or in seeing if dockless can make a dent in CaBi, for example (complementary or otherwise). A national measure isn’t all that helpful at this point to helping understand if cities are going to embrace/allow dockless, low-maintenance systems.

  • Evan D

    What? It took dockless bikeshare three months to generate as many trips as our docked bikeshare accomplished in 30.

    https://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2017/12/15/bike-share-pilots-daily-ridership-blows-past-prontos-lifetime-totals-rivals-both-streetcars-combined/

  • homerbound

    you can mark it down, this year dockless will hit 10 million rides and the following year will surpass docked in the us.

    As many have pointed out the surge in docked only came on late in 2017. If there are an average of 100k dockless bikes in 2018 ( which continued growth seems to have achieved), they only need to be ridden every 3 days to hit ten million. Some pilots in miami, carolina south bend and st louis have seen that met comfortably or even over 1 ride a day. dockless will have two to three hundred k bikes being ridden more than every other day by 2019 and easily hit 30 million rides.

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