Dockless bikes are moving into many American cities. Who gets to regulate them? Edgar Su/Reuters

Florida lawmakers are weighing a bill that would override a city’s ability to regulate the new private bikesharing companies.

Last July, bright green bikes from the dockless bikeshare company LimeBike started appearing in Miami Beach. It wasn’t immediately clear if the company was trying to quietly launch their system, or if people were just riding the bikes the 15 miles from Key Biscayne, where LimeBike had legally set up shop.

Miami Beach officials deemed them “unauthorized” and responded with $1,000 fines for the company and threats to impound the bikes. A LimeBike spokesperson says it was a misunderstanding caused by Key Biscayne users bringing bikes to Miami Beach; the issue was resolved after they came and collected their stray bikes.

The situation was demonstrative of the typical give-and-take between municipalities as this polarizing new mobility mode emerges and individual communities decide whether or not to embrace the chaos that is docklessness.

State legislators, however, are currently considering a bill that would preempt the ability of local lawmakers to craft their own regulations governing the industry. As Fast Company recently reported, the bill would create uniform insurance and equipment safety standards for private dockless bikeshare companies, prohibiting cities from taxing, regulating, or requiring business licenses. Had LimeBike been trying to launch in Miami Beach without notice, there’s nothing city officials could have done.

The legislators and lobbyists behind the bill argue that it’s an effort to create a business-friendly path for new bikeshare companies to proliferate statewide. “The intent is to allow businesses to enter into the marketplace and let the free market dictate how many bicycles are out there and not have this company deal with individual municipalities,” said the House bill’s lead sponsor, Representative Jackie Toledo, at the January 16 Careers and Competition Subcomittee meeting. “We’re trying to make it so these bicycles can be used throughout the state of Florida.” (Toledo did not respond to CityLab’s interview request.)

But the bill’s opponents—which include the North American Bikeshare Association (NABSA) and several dockless bikeshare companies—say that the legislation is a Trojan horse that kneecaps cities’ ability to control or benefit from the services that will operate on their streets. It’s a case that has brought out a curious combination of foes and supporters, and has drawn comparisons to similar struggles with ride-hailing firms like Uber over local regulations.

If Toledo’s bill becomes law, the dockless companies would be required to have at least $500,000 in liability insurance for incidents where a faulty bike was the cause of a crash. The rental bikes would have to meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s standards for bicycle safety, be available for rental 24/7, be prominently marked with the company name and contact information, and be parked legally when not in use. But the bill also bars cities from taxing dockless bikeshare companies, requiring them to get a city business license, limiting their operation, or prohibiting them altogether. The law would not apply to the traditional docked bikeshare systems.

Dockless bikeshare systems, which were pioneered in China in 2014, first started appearing in the U.S. cities last year. Unlike traditional docked bikeshare systems where riders must check the bikes in and out of stations, dockless bikes are checked out with a smartphone app and left wherever the ride ends. The bikes use a built-in lock on the rear wheel to immobilize them when not in use. There’s a scrum of startups now competing for riders in several U.S. cities, from U.S. players like LimeBike and Spin to Beijing-based Ofo and Mobike.

Their arrival has been accompanied by much community concern about sidewalk-clogging bike clutter. In Seattle, Washington, D.C., and other early DoBi adopters, officials have regulated the number of bikes the companies are allowed to put out and how those bikes must be parked. Seattle allows up to 2,000 bikes per company; D.C.’s pilot caps it at just 400 bikes per company. Opponents of the Florida bill worry that without local control, the sidewalks of the state’s cities will be overrun with unregulated cycles. “This is a bad bill,“ says Florida League of Cities legislative advocate Jeff Branch. “It’s going to crowd sidewalks. It will allow vendors to come in unregulated. Who wants that? Cities should know who’s operating in their jurisdiction. It’s a safety concern and common sense concern.”

Toledo explained at the subcommittee meeting that the legislation does not preempt local regulations about bike parking. But opponents point out it will still fall on local officials to enforce the regulations and, without revenue from business licenses and taxes, it will be an unreimbursed cost for the city. “If bikes are misplaced or in the public right of way blocking a ramp, it’s going to be the local officials who have to deal with that problem,” says NABSA executive director Samantha Herr. “Enforcement is going to happen at the local level, but a city might not have the capacity for bikeshare.”

At that January meeting, Representative Julio Gonzalez said, “We are imposing a cost on the cities. Make no mistake. I find it a little disheartening and disingenuous that we would do that without allowing the cities some manner of recouping the costs.”

Ofo, the primary force behind the bill, hired two lobbyists to push the legislation. One of the largest dockless operators in the world, they launched in South Miami in November, their only Florida location so far. “The reason we decided to run this bill in Florida is specifically because dockless bike providers have not been allowed to get into many cities,” says David London, Ofo’s head of North American government affairs. “Many cities have exclusive deals with incumbent [docked] providers in the state. … It’s something that has been impacting our industry and disallowing us from providing those services.”

Several Florida cities—including Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Key West—have docked bikeshare systems, many of which are run as public-private partnerships. London likens opposition from these operators to the hotel industry’s pushback against Airbnb and the taxi industry’s against Uber and Lyft.

But Ofo’s dockless rivals LimeBike and Spin, who have similarly made inroads in Florida cities last year, also oppose the legislation. “We’ve built the success we’ve had as a company by partnering with cities and universities around the country,” says LimeBike vice president of strategic development Andrew Savage. “Statewide preemption would really fly in the face of that critical mission of working closely with communities. The best programs we run are the ones where we engaged closely with transportation and community leaders in the city to build it.”

One other factor that may be behind the bill: The desire to keep user data out of public hands. Dockless bikeshare companies have attracted massive venture capital investment in part because their apps are personal data gathering machines. Those numbers are useful for transit planners, and cities often try to require data sharing as part of their regulation of gig-economy firms like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb. Those companies have in turn lobbied state legislatures to enact preemption laws preventing cities from requiring data sharing. London says that data is “not top of our list of our issues, but it is one of our issues.”

Preemption laws are familiar fare in Florida—the state legislature has successfully preempted local control on minimum wage, paid leave, municipal broadband, Styrofoam container bans, tax increases and more. Last year, the legislature passed a law for Uber and Lyft creating insurance and background-check requirements and banning local regulation of the ride-hailing companies. (Both of Ofo’s lobbyists are also registered as lobbyists for Uber.)

According to the National League of Cities (NLC), there has been an increase in recent years of conservative state legislatures preempting local control on a variety of issues. In states where one party controls all branches of government, there’s little to stop the legislature from pushing its policies on cities. “There’s often a mismatch between political priorities at the state level and cities,” says Brooks Rainwater, director of NCL’s Center for City Solutions. “Business interests often turn to sympathetic state legislators when they can’t get what they want at the local level, even though that’s where they operate. If you start to dig into the legislation, it looks very similar in a number of states.”

Indeed, Ofo also hired lobbyists to advocate for a dockless bikeshare bill in the Oklahoma legislature that contains nearly identical language about insurance requirements and equipment standards as Florida’s, but does not include the preemption clause.

Meanwhile, the Florida bill is continuing its journey, as Toledo’s colleagues passed the bill out of the committee 13 to 1. The bill has to pass out of another committee before it heads to the house floor for debate. On February 6, the state senate passed its almost identical version of the bill out of committee 8 votes to 2. Should the legislation become law, it would take effect July 1 of this year.

Whether it happens or not, London says, “It’s not going to change the ways we work with cities one iota. We will continue to work with cities if it does pass or it doesn’t pass.”

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