One Wild Ride: The Rise of Dockless Bike Share Programs

Bike shares have been around for several years, but the newest iteration of the two-wheeled trend is causing concern among local government officials and citizens alike. Beyond questions of profitability and durability, dockless transit share models raise questions about what the future of commerce looks like.  

Dockless bikes and scooters are the latest in so-called “last mile” transportation solutions, designed to quickly and inexpensively take commuters from the train or bus stop to their final destination. Like their docked counterparts, these bikes and scooters operate on a pay-as-you-go model, available for shared use on a short-term basis for a fee. Unlike their docked counterparts, however, these vehicles can be left anywhere. For many cities, that’s a problem.

In China, where dockless bikes originated, municipal governments are trying to deal with the millions of bikes that have been drowned, demolished, or otherwise discarded by users. In July alone, some 3,000 bikes were pulled out of rivers after being unceremoniously dumped by riders. Part of this bike pollution problem was caused by oversaturation: Chinese companies rolled out the dockless bikes at lightning speed and in huge quantities, with government support but seemingly without sufficient demand. Another part of the problem was bad stewardship: users have shown a propensity for riding the bikes and then tossing them aside when done. Bike share vandalism is in fact so rampant in China that political commentators are questioning the very moral fiber of the Chinese people as bicycle graveyards continue to grow.

The Chinese aren’t the only ones behaving badly. Bike share users in the United Kingdom and Australia have hacked, vandalized, and tossed their bikes into traffic-blocking heaps, while companies in the United States have employed guerilla marketing techniques, leaving their bikes and scooters on the street overnight in hopes of finding a user come morning. But American cities are pushing back: local governments in California, Texas and Massachusetts have threatened to impound any bikes or scooters left by companies that enter unannounced, while other cities have drafted ordinances imposing limits on the number of bikes and scooters that can be in circulation at any given time and attaching hefty fees to existing permitting structures.

Beyond reckless users and resistant city governments, the dockless programs in the United States have another enemy:  docked programs. New York, San Francisco and Boston already have sponsor-backed bike share programs in place, using fixed docking stations. The contracts between these cities and their bike share operator exclude dockless bike programs from market participation, creating a patchwork field of play for dockless bike share companies in many metropolitan areas. While dockless bikes are not allowed to enter docked bike territory, people are still free to ride (and park) them wherever they want, leaving the bikes in a legal gray area. Companies are supposed to pick up any bicycle that wanders into docked territory, but there doesn’t appear to be anything in place to prevent the bikes from getting picked up by a user in the meantime. To combat this problem, docked bike cities are opting to compete with the dockless systems. New York launched a dockless bikeshare pilot program this summer for outer borough neighborhoods not served by its docked Citibike program. (Almost immediately, there were complaints about the bikes piling up on sidewalks and being tossed over fences.)

Dockless bike share models certainly face numerous obstacles in the United States, but the potential for success could outweigh the risk of failure. The vehicles carry more than just commuters—they also carry data. Bike and scooter share companies have the ability to collect a wealth of information from their riders that could fuel ancillary businesses. Data gathered from bike and scooter share programs can tell whoever is interested what age group travels to which neighborhood and when, what the most frequently traveled routes are, and what stops people make between home and the office. It’s easy to imagine a world in which you park your shared bike in front of a friend’s house at 6 pm and your bikeshare app suggests a bar nearby—it’s similar to other places you’ve been to before, attracts a lot of people in your age demographic, and oh, by the way, here’s a coupon. Cheers.