A dockless bikeshare bike on the streets of D.C.
Handy mobility option or sidewalk scourge? Kriston Capps/CityLab

In Washington, D.C., some residents are not enthusiastic about the free-range rent-a-bikes.

Washington, D.C., is now four months into its dockless bikeshare experiment, which extends through April. This is long enough for the meddlesome neighborly gripes of D.C. residents who object to these free-range rentable bicycles to reach full bloom. It’s the response that often greets minor improvements to the way things work, and it’s currently having its high-modernist moment, its uproarious third season, its Fifth Symphony.

The meddlesome neighborly gripe starts with a root-chord complaint about how bikeshare leads to a lot of sidewalk “clutter.” While there is some truth to that, a proper listserv riposte would never stop there. Beyond lay greater rhetorical heights.

It’s prudent to first consider a measured irritation: Bikeshare users sometimes park their dockless bikes on sidewalks and curb cuts, making them obstacles for people who use motorized chairs or otherwise experience disabilities affecting mobility, among others. Plus, it’s just rude.

“I’m very much for a livable city,” says Ian Watlington, senior disability advocacy specialist for the National Disability Rights Network, which is based in D.C. “I don’t have a problem with dockless bikes per se. It’s more of a people problem.”

This issue calls for an education campaign, Watlington says. A few different efforts to that end are in the works. (More on those in a moment.) Many complaints from residents about dockless bikeshare, though, take a different tenor: An argument that paints dockless bikes as a nexus for crime and neighborhood ruin has taken hold in the civic killjoy community in certain places.

Neighbors have been rehearsing their tirades about dockless bikeshare for weeks. In December, local WAMU reporter Martin Austermeuhle shared a holiday howler from the Georgetown neighborhood listserv: A resident said they aimed to call 911 to stop people from using dockless bikes. They’d even called the city on Christmas Eve. (The program’s perfectly legal.) That dispatch had some of the elements of a fine whine—abuse of city resources, the words “suspicious activity” in quotes, surreal yuletide rage—but not all the essential markers of form.

Perfection arrived early in the New Year. On January 5, residents in Petworth, a neighborhood with a vibrant mix of longtime families and cocktail waystations, received a listserv notice from an area Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative. (Think of the ANC as the local stage where not-in-my-backyard ballads are performed.) In sequence, the commissioner for ANC 4A02 hit all the expected notes: complaints about process, “unsightly presence in unusual locations,” and “criminal elements that result from [the bicycles’] presence and locations.”

The obligatory dog whistle came via a bullet point about “ease of movement/escape from watchful eyes and law enforcement.” Neighborhood busybodies have not been shy about accusing dockless bikeshare users of crime (not any specific crime, just bein’ criminal). This is where I will pin another CityLab story about how dockless bikeshare is finding wider purchase within D.C.’s black community, especially with youths. Just leaving that there.

Then there is the core complaint, the mirepoix of any neighborhood listserv grievance: It offends me aesthetically. With respect to dockless bikeshare, this criticism comes dressed up as a mobility question. The polite refrain about dockless bikes is that they block sidewalks and driveways—a real problem, but tendered in bad faith. Any cyclist recognizes the pitch-perfect irony.

Dockless bikeshare represents a vivid illustration of how residents define nuisances not as issues to be navigated, but irritations that they feel entitled to regulate out of existence. Writing in The New York Times, Emily Badger recently traced the expanding sphere of homeowners’ sense of entitlement beyond backyards to encompass their entire neighborhoods (or cities). Locally, if tax-paying residents of Petworth or Georgetown don’t like dockless bikes, the thinking goes, then someone has to do something about it—namely, scuttle the whole program.

Plenty of people do appreciate the dockless option. Patrick Kennedy, the ANC chair for Foggy Bottom, a neighborhood where well-heeled residents and State Department diplomats cross paths with George Washington University students, told Current that residents there like going dockless. In Foggy Bottom, traffic is heavy, sidewalks are wide, and the existing Capital Bikeshare stations are often so full that users run the risk of getting dockblocked.

What else can be done to calm dockless outrage? A spokesperson for LimeBike, one of the five (and soon to be six) dockless operators working in D.C., says that there are team members stationed in D.C. working daily to answer calls and put bikes back where they belong. Education is one tool, as Watlington says. To that end, LimeBike has released the first in a series of videos on bikeshare etiquette. It’s themed after The Matrix—cute!

The District Department of Transportation says that they encourage bikeshare users to ensure a 5-foot clear zone for parking the bikes in order to meet ADA requirements. The department is fielding complaints and working with operators to address them over this trial run.

“We have heard that some visually impaired people have a hard time identifying the bikes on the sidewalk even if there is a 5-foot clear zone,” says Terry Owens, DDOT’s public information officer. “We also know there are instances of sidewalks being obstructed. We are working with the companies to address issues as we become aware. We also encourage the companies to be more proactive with their customers and operations.”

There’s an opportunity here. Dockless bikeshare may be well suited to answer a frequent complaint about the lack of adaptive bikes for people with disabilities. That’s an issue with Capital Bikeshare, too, but there aren’t any adaptive bicycles available that work with D.C.’s docks, Owens says.  

In nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, a memorandum of understanding for a planned dockless bikeshare trial anticipates residents’ objections in the very first “whereas.” The memo rattles off a list of common-sense no-parking zones for dockless bikes: driveways, crosswalks, street furniture, bus stops, restaurant patios, and more. The county plans to give companies one hour to remove bikes that are parked improperly before it confiscates them. And in the case of a snow emergency, Montgomery County expects dockless bikeshare companies to reclaim all their bicycles for the duration.

What more should be done? That depends on who you ask. In D.C., dockless bikes do represent a potential hazard, but disability advocates don’t argue that the whole enterprise should be scrapped as a result. Not according to Watlington, and not according to LimeBike, whose spokesperson says that the company hasn’t received anything like a formal objection from any organization representing communities with disabilities.

Entitled residents are nevertheless using an argument steeped in disability rights to say that the sidewalks belong to them—and that the alternative is some kind of pedal-powered crime wave. In its own way, it’s elegant.

“The solution is education,” Watlington says, “not banning the bikes.”

This post has been updated.

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