About three times a week, Kristina Sawyckyj encounters a familiar obstacle while navigating Seattle’s streets and sidewalks: a brightly colored, free-floating rentable bike in the way.
“They are completely blocking the roadway or blocking a curb cut or blocking the button to change the light,” said Sawyckyj, who uses a wheelchair.
New numbers from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) show Sawyckyj’s experience is common.
In the first three months of this year, SDOT found that about 14% of bike-share bikes checked by city staff were creating an obstacle that could be hazardous to people who are visually impaired or use a wheelchair. In audits of about 500 bikes, staff counted them blocking sidewalks and curb ramps, leaning against buildings and obstructing bus loading zones or private pathways.
Another 11% of bikes were improperly parked, some of them tipped over, but not posing a hazard, according to SDOT.
Sawyckyj, a military veteran and member of the Seattle Commission for People with disAbilities, said the issue is particularly bad near the city’s colleges and universities. She was on her way to the University of Washington one night in January when a Lime bike on the sidewalk fell onto her, she said in an email. She suffered cuts and bruises and was was taken to the hospital for treatment.
“There needs to be accountability,” she said, including clearer parking guidelines and easier ways to contact bike-share companies about injuries due to poorly parked bikes.
Lime and Jump, the two companies operating bike-shares in Seattle, said in statements they instruct riders to properly park bikes and have field staff to find and move those inappropriately parked. Lime said it offers riders incentives like ride credits to park in preferred areas. Lyft, which SDOT says plans to launch a bike-share in Seattle this summer, did not respond to a request for comment.
SDOT began the preliminary audits in January and plans to soon begin using a third party to monitor the bikes. The 2019 audit numbers were first reported by KOMO-TV.
The permits Seattle issued to the bike-share companies require that no more than 3% of their bikes are left in a way that creates an obstacle. But the city previously used a narrower definition of what constituted an obstacle, limited to just bikes blocking curb ramps or leaving less than 6 feet of space to get past on the sidewalk, said SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson.
In the first three months of 2019, fewer than 2% of bike-share bikes checked were posing an obstacle under that more limited definition, Bergerson said.
Now, SDOT intends to use its broader definition, but is unsure how soon it will start enforcing it. Eventually, the city could reduce the number of bikes a company is allowed to have in Seattle or refuse to renew a company’s permit if it doesn’t sufficiently address improper parking. But that will not happen immediately, Bergerson said.
Between 6,000 and 7,000 bike-share bikes are on the streets of Seattle in any given week, according to SDOT.
The city points to new bike-parking areas as a way to encourage people to not leave bikes on the sidewalk. SDOT plans to finish building 1,500 bike parking spaces, ranging from painted areas to bike racks, by the end of the year using money from the bike-share companies’ permits. The city currently has about 10,000 bike parking spots, according to SDOT.
The agency also plans to work with disability-rights group Rooted in Rights to produce a video about bike parking to distribute to bike-share users.
“There are a lot of people who just don’t have that realization of what the right way to park is or the consequences of this,” Bergerson said.
Increasingly, bikes are not the only free-floating obstacles. Cities across the country are welcoming electric scooters (though Seattle still hasn’t) and are facing similar concerns.
In San Diego, people with disabilities filed a lawsuit alleging the city and scooter-rental companies failed to do enough to stop people from riding then leaving the scooters on sidewalks. In response to complaints about bikes blocking pedestrians, Washington, D.C., began requiring bike-share companies to offer a way for the bikes to be locked up.
Bike share has “a lot of potential to play a really important role in mobility in the city,” Bergerson said. “At the same time we can’t be expanding one group’s mobility while taking away another set of people’s ability to get around.”
Seattle is relatively walkable for blind people but clutter like bikes can quickly make things more hazardous, said Marci Carpenter, president of the Washington chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.
Carpenter, who is blind, primarily gets around the city by walking or by bus and regularly finds bike-share bikes parked in the middle of sidewalks or blocking curb ramps.
“A bike isn’t just like a flat piece of something standing there,” Carpenter said. “It’s curved, the handlebars are turned or the wheels are turned, so I might encounter it with my cane and be able to walk around it. I also might not.”
Carpenter also has had bikes fall on her. She said a friend left her apartment to find a bike blocking the entrance to the building.
“I love that we have bike-share because I love anything that gets people out of their cars,” Carpenter said. “But I feel incredulous, too, about the thoughtlessness of people. It’s very frustrating.”