8 Tips for Cities to Make the Most of Dockless Bike-Share and Scooters

In addition to publicly-operated Capital Bikeshare, there are now four bike-share start-ups in DC (not pictured: Jump). Photo: Greater Greater Washington
In addition to publicly-operated Capital Bikeshare, there are now four bike-share start-ups in DC (not pictured: Jump). Photo: Greater Greater Washington

Fleets of free-floating scooters, bikes, and e-bikes for-hire are popping up in dozens of American cities.

The expansion of nimble, mostly human-powered vehicles for point-to-point trips has a lot of promise. Most trips in cities are less than a few miles long. The new services also pose a few challenges, like how to prevent an influx of smaller vehicles from cluttering sidewalks.

This week, the National Association of City Transportation Officials released guidelines to help cities manage these services without getting taken for a ride. Here’s a review of NACTO’s recommendations.

1. Set up parking zones for the vehicles in the street.

To prevent the vehicles from getting in people’s way on the sidewalk, provide space for them in the street. One official in DC, for example, has proposed adding bike corrals at the end of every block. It makes intersections safer, and it’s only fair considering the enormous amount of curb space cities have devoted to free car storage.

2. Companies, not the public, should cover the cost of keeping their fleets in order. 

To pay for staff and equipment to field complaints about errant vehicles and install new racks for the bikes and scooters, cities should charge fees that approximate these costs. One-time application fees and recurring fees per vehicle are both employed. The key principle NACTO recommends is to set the fees to roughly match the public costs incurred by the services.

3. Companies can be required to remove bikes or scooters that are blocking the right of way in a set period of time. 

A variation on #2: If cities don’t want to spend staff time responding to complaints about misplaced bikes, they can require companies to handle them — or pay a fee.

4. Discounts for low-income residents and fair fleet distribution. 

Chicago requires companies to offer a cash payment option so unbanked people can access the services. In Los Angeles, companies have to waive the deposit fee for residents earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold and to provide a discount cash purchase option. Some cities — including DC — also have rules mandating fleet distribution to make a certain number of vehicles available in lower-income neighborhoods.

5. Companies should be required to have insurance that indemnifies the city.

Enough said.

6. Trip data should be available in an open, standard format.

The open data standard for bike-share is called the General Bike Share Feed Specification, and cities should insist that companies release their trip data in this format, which covers the origin and destination of trips and anonymized real-time location data of vehicles. In addition, companies should compile regular summaries of total trips, lost or damaged vehicles, collisions, and complaints about misplaced vehicles.

7. Vehicles should be inspected and maintained on a regular schedule set by the city.

Cities have a responsibility to ensure the fleets are safe. NACTO recommends mandating that bike-share fleets meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission standards for bicycles, and that the companies can remotely lock any vehicles that have reported safety problems.

8. Damaged or unsafe vehicles must be removed within a certain timeframe.

Once a complaint has been lodged about a vehicle, a clock should start ticking for companies to respond, or else pay small penalty. Los Angeles, Durham, and Denver give companies 24 hours to handle complaints. In Austin, it’s as little as four hours.

  • redbike

    Hmmn, just about everything on your wish list is achieved by the hardware and implementation of conventional docked bike share systems.

    Okay, there’s no one-size-fits-all, but the trade-offs inherent in dockless all seem to trend in the wrong direction.

    Dockless seems to be yet another repeat of “progress”: first, figure out how to do it right; then, figure out how to do it cheap.

    Contrasting / comparing — about the only situation that dockless systems may address better than conventional docked systems: implementation in low(er) density locales.

  • Cyrille MdC

    GBFS data feeds do not provide trip data, mainly just the current location of stations, available bicycles and free docks. A few other tidbits as well but does not provide any historical data.

    But I get your point about trip data. However it should be noted that many existing station based bike share do not share their trip data either.

    Cheers,
    Cyrille

  • DrunkEngineer

    Why should cities be indemnified?

  • Kenny Easwaran

    While you’re right that docked bikeshares do better than dockless on every point mentioned here, they do much worse at actually being useful for riders. The greater flexibility of where to begin and end rides seems to get a lot more people actually riding.

    Note that Austin’s docked bike share, after operating for about four years, has reached about 720,000 total trips: https://austinbcycle.com/about/stats-facts

    The dockless bike share in the much smaller and less bike-friendly city of College Station has reached 170,000 trips in under six months: http://transport.tamu.edu/alternative/bicycles/bikeshare.aspx#sustain

  • redbike

    the much smaller and less bike-friendly city

    Thanks for the citations!

    As I commented, there’s no one-size-fits-all, and dockless bike share platforms may be better-suited to low(er) density locales.

    My ignorance of both Austin and College Station is vast / total / complete. Acknowledging that as a starting point, I’m speculating: might the more intense use in College Station be attributable to a higher percentage of the population being bike share customers? Also — reiterating my ignorance — does College Station’s system offer options (other than the hardware) more appealing to its clients? My underlying question: is the higher number of trips in College Station attributable only to the system being dockless? Maybe the College Station system is better run.

  • redbike

    Failure to indemnify localities is part of socializing costs while privatizing profits. You want to run your private business on our public streets? Cool! Assume responsibility before you reap the profits.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    There’s surely a lot of factors. But my understanding is that every city that has had both docked and dockless bike shares has had more ridership on the dockless. That was especially clear in San Diego, where I first used dockless bike share while on a trip a few months ago – but their docked system is extremely poorly set up, with relatively few stations and high prices. Streetsblog has done a bit more comparison of the two types of system in Seattle (though I think the analysis there was incomplete): https://usa.streetsblog.org/2018/06/06/taking-stock-of-dockless-bike-share-in-seattle/

    There’s definitely a lot of factors that are relevant to all this, and some of the advantages the dockless bike shares have are clearly ephemeral (two examples that come to mind: cheap prices due to subsidies from venture capital seeking to grab market share early, and lower costs due to using cheap bikes that might need more repair or replacement costs later). But as someone who has used both types of system myself, I can say that the dockless feature really is useful (maybe not if a docked city can have extremely dense dock coverage – I suspect New York and Paris are the only cities that have been close to dense enough to eliminate that advantage).

    We’ll have to watch how both types of system develop, and which features that seem essential to one might be able to be adapted to the other.

  • DrunkEngineer

    So a city should be indemnified against dangerous and/or unmaintained infrastructure, just because a crash occurred with a scooter? That is ridiculous.

  • Jason

    “I suspect New York and Paris are the only cities that have been close to dense enough to eliminate that advantage”

    I’d throw in DC, although with Capital Bikeshare it really depends where you are. Downtown DC, definitely. But there area CaBi service areas where you’re very much at risk of not getting a bike (or worse, IMO, of arriving at the end of a trip at the only dock for a mile around only to find all of the docks full).

  • And a city should be liable because they let a company put scooters on the street so when someone does something stupid or because they don’t have enough skill, or the scooter itself was in disrepair?

  • I don’t understand why more is not made of the distinction between dock, dockless, and dock-optional. JUMP/SoBi bikes are dock optional, as in, they can be locked to any rack, or if a rack is not available, any fixed object, but they encourage locking at hubs (of which some will be charging hubs). In my mind, this is the best of both worlds. JUMP really ought to make more of this distinction.

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