The Seattle Department of Transportation has spent months developing permanent rules for bike-share operations in the city. There's not really a model to go off of and other cities are looking to us.
Dallas let them do whatever they want.
Washington, D.C., put strict limits on how many there could be.
Chicago put even stricter limits on how many and on what kind.
It’s been a year since dockless bike-share companies showed up in American cities, landing in Seattle first and growing exponentially here and elsewhere. In that time, cities have been grappling with how to regulate the companies, and the thousands of brightly colored bikes they’ve dropped on our streets and sidewalks.
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Los Angeles is considering barring them from neighborhoods where the city-owned bike shares are located. New York is just dipping its toe into dockless bike share, allowing them only in select outer-borough neighborhoods.
With about 10,000 bikes now on the streets in Seattle, the city’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been working for months on how to make dockless bike share a permanent presence here.
The agency’s proposed regulations, which have been delayed repeatedly, are expected to be presented to the City Council this month. SDOT says the regulations will focus on how much to charge the companies in fees, how to make sure they serve all neighborhoods of the city and “a strong proactive approach” to keeping sidewalks clear.
Bike sharing is big business. The two biggest companies operating in Seattle each have well over $100 million in private funding. The ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft, seeking broader roles in urban transportation, both recently bought bike-share companies for sums reported to be around $200 million or more.
Shouldn’t these massively funded, private companies looking to profit off of publicly owned space be tightly regulated?
On the other hand: They’re offering an inexpensive, environmentally and traffic-friendly way for people to get around — at no financial cost to the cities. Shouldn’t we stay out of their way?
There are no proven models for SDOT to follow as officials write the regulations. Seattle was the first major American city to welcome dockless bike shares. Other cities with new bike-share programs looked to and borrowed from Seattle’s pilot program, as they’ve written their own regulations.
The two people most responsible for Seattle’s relatively lenient bike-share program — former SDOT Director Scott Kubly and former bike-share program manager Kyle Rowe — have both left government and now work for bike-share companies.
But there are strategies that Seattle could look at to address the most frequent bike-share complaint — inappropriately parked bikes clogging sidewalks and other public spaces.
“It is up to the city to allocate public space for dockless bike parking to avoid negative outcomes such as bike piles and bikes blocking the pedestrian right of way,” the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy writes in a just-released bike-share planning guide. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) will release its own model guidelines this week.
“This is a big puzzle that everybody’s trying to figure out,” said Kate Fillin-Yeh, director of strategy for NACTO. “The point here is to provide mobility, making sure that what these companies are doing is really doing that.”
Potential strategies include: Capping the number of bikes each company can put in the city, requiring that parked bikes be locked to a physical object or within prescribed boundaries and enforcing time limits for companies to move mis-parked bikes.
“Seattle was the first to jump into the dockless arena,” said Samantha Herr, director of the North American Bikeshare Association. “They’re closing up their pilot and moving into a more permanent regulatory zone. What the findings are, what the changes they’re making are — we’re all sort of looking to that.”
“Getting out of control”
Dallas’ laissez-faire approach to dockless bike share made Seattle’s relatively modest set of fees and regulations look positively draconian. The city welcomed all comers and let them use the streets and sidewalks for free, with no bike-share specific regulations.
Last August, Dallas had no dockless bike shares. By the end of the year there were five companies and 20,000 bikes — twice the number that are in Seattle.
Things came to a head early this year: The Dallas transportation department was getting about 1,000 complaints a month about bikes blocking sidewalks and bikes that were ridden into neighborhoods only to be abandoned for weeks on end.
In January, the city manager wrote to the bike-share companies, threatening to remove bikes from the streets if the companies didn’t clean up the unused bikes.
“It was just getting out of control,” said Jared White, Dallas’ bicycle-transportation manager. “It’s calmed down since.”
In June, the Dallas City Council finalized new bike-share regulations. They look a lot like Seattle’s pilot program, which White said city officials reviewed. Bike-share companies must pay $808 for a permit and $21 a year for each bike they put on the streets.
Seattle charged about $1,800 plus $15 per bike.
In Dallas, bikes cannot be parked on any sidewalk narrower than 8 feet, bikes parked in neighborhoods must be moved by the companies within 48 hours and bikes blocking a sidewalk must be moved within two hours of being reported on weekdays. The companies have 12 hours to move mis-parked bikes on nights and weekends.
The city will use the fees to hire two bike-share enforcement officers. They’ll also train parking-enforcement officers to monitor bike parking. But they won’t be handing out tickets. If they see problems they’ll contact the companies, who will have to move the bikes; persistent violations could lead to fines or revoking or suspending a company’s permit.
Little proactive enforcement
Both Chicago and Washington, D.C., have welcomed dockless bike sharing, but in far fewer numbers than in Seattle. Both cities have strict limits on how many bikes each company may put on the streets — 400 bikes (or scooters) in Washington and 350 bikes in Chicago.
Both cities are in the midst of pilot programs scheduled to end in the next few months. They also have an incentive to limit dockless bike shares — both cities (along with New York and L.A.) have substantial investments in successful, city-owned bike-share programs that use docking stations and that could be hurt by dockless competitors.
“Our initial permit language was based very closely off of what we saw in Seattle,” said Kim Lucas, the bike-share program manager for the District Department of Transportation. “We specify where bikes may not be left.”
But like Seattle, the District doesn’t have much proactive enforcement of where bikes are parked; the city asks people to call the companies if there’s a problem.
Chicago’s pilot is stricter. It’s limited to the South Side of the city, where the city-owned docking bike-share program doesn’t operate. And Chicago is, for the most part, banning the type of dockless bikes that are in Seattle.
Companies are allowed only 50 wheel-lock bikes — the kind that lock with a metal bar through their rear wheel. All other dockless bikes must be able to lock to a physical object, like a signpost or bike rack, when a ride is over.
That allows companies like JUMP (which is owned by Uber) to operate, because their bikes are supposed to be locked to something. But a similar policy in Seattle would essentially banish the three companies now operating here — Lime, ofo and Spin — from the city.
Mike Claffey, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation, said that bikes blocking sidewalks was a serious issue as they developed their regulations.
“We’re concerned about the clutter that other cities have experienced,” Claffey said. “We want to see how it functions, but we don’t have any solid info on how it’s going.”