Alex Baca works on sustainable land use, transportation, and housing policy in the D.C. region. She has written for Washington City Paper, Slate, The American Conservative, Cleveland Magazine, Strong Towns, and Greater Greater Washington. Views here are her own.
Public or private? Docked or dockless? E-bike or e-scooter? It’s complicated. But bikesharing is now big business, and cities need to understand how these emerging systems operate—and who operates them.
At the beginning of April, the ride-hailing giant Uber acquired the bikeshare company called Jump for $200 million. Jump vends and operates its neon-red electric bicycles in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and, soon, Sacramento; it’s the second skin of a firm called Social Bicycles, which had by 2017 seen its dockless smart-bike equipment deployed in over 40 cities.
The rebranding of Social Bicycles as Jump signified a few things. A company that had previously only sold bikeshare equipment was vertically integrating to both own and operate it, and it was committing to e-bikes as a differentiator in the increasingly crowded field of personal mobility devices. The purchase of Jump by Uber, which shakes out to about $13,000 per bike, revealed a few more things, like that short trips in cars are miserably unprofitable.
But most notably, to me, the acquisition signaled that bikesharing in America, which has with a few exceptions eked out an existence via a patchwork of public grants and private sponsorships, is now big business.
It’s easy to forget how young and unformed this transportation mode is: The first modern municipal bikeshare, Paris’ Velib, launched in 2007, and the first programs in the U.S. appeared in 2010. In 2017, the field changed dramatically with the introduction of dockless equipment—primarily manufactured, distributed, and operated by Chinese companies—to U.S. markets.
Dockless bikes, which can be rented and returned without the constraints of a docking station, represent a radical departure from existing “legacy” systems, which look stable and institutionalized in comparison. But what most urbanites often don’t see is that the funding, implementation, and operation of bikeshare, docked or otherwise, has never been consistent. Now that dockless bikeshare and shareable electric bikes (and scooters) have entered the lexicon of cities—and major players like Uber are jumping into the game—it’s a good time to give city leaders and residents a primer on what we’ve learned about bikeshare, what it can and can’t do well, and how it can exist harmoniously in our public spaces.
The consistent inconsistency of bikeshare systems
Bikesharing arrived in the U.S. with an enormous promise: to connect communities, to ease last-mile trips, and to provide and expand transit options in American cities, where many destinations are too far to walk but too close to drive. So how much closer has it come to satisfying those big-picture goals?
To begin to answer that question, we need to go a few steps back—not to the dawn of bikesharing (that would be 1963, in Amsterdam, where an anarchist collective made white-painted bikes publicly available for free), but into the rooms where the decisions about what comes to exist in the public right-of-way are made. Readers who work in or adjacent to the public sector may be familiar with such spaces; for my part, I witnessed some of the behind-the-scenes wrangling of bikeshare as the general manager of UHBikes, a 250-bike, 29-station system owned by Cuyahoga County and deployed within the city of Cleveland.
Most legacy bikeshare systems, like UHBikes, were procured by their host cities: These programs were kickstarted by putting out requests for proposals for equipment, operators, or both. But beyond that common denominator, nearly every city’s model is different.
The variations start with the bikes themselves. There are many vendors of bikeshare equipment—among them PBSC Urban Solutions, B-Cycle, Zagster, Social Bicycles. Historically, that equipment has been dock-based, requiring riders to start and end trips at designated docks; the docks themselves are the “smart” pieces of equipment, collecting trip data. Since 2013, Social Bicycles has manufactured a GPS-enabled “smart bike” with an integrated lock that can be left anywhere, though the company and those that operate its equipment implore users to lock up to bike racks and sign poles. Payment systems are similarly all over the map: Some systems have kiosks at which users can register; others require apps.
Likewise, there’s tremendous variation in who owns, operates, funds, or sponsors any given city’s equipment. For example, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare is publicly funded and publicly owned, but privately operated by Motivate, a firm that also operates Divvy in Chicago and Citibike in New York City. Divvy, like CaBi, is publicly funded, whereas Citibike is a privately operated public-private partnership funded through sponsorships from Citibank and Mastercard.* Denver B-Cycle, meanwhile, is operated by a nonprofit set up to manage the system; while Philadelphia’s Indego is operated by Bicycle Transit Systems, which also oversees programs in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Oklahoma City.
The bikeshare system that I managed is operated by a for-profit company, Cyclehop; owned by Cuyahoga County; and was funded with federal dollars, passed through the state to a regional planning authority to the county. Further, private dollars from foundations, nonprofits, and individual donors composed a required 20 percent local match.
In short, docked bikeshare systems have typically been a sorta-public, sorta-private mishmash, procured through whatever process a municipality has in place.
Enter the age of docklessness
Dockless bikes are fundamentally different: Ofo, Mobike, Limebike, Spin, and Jump are entirely private operators that own their equipment. And that equipment, of course, is self-locking and free-floating (though Jump ostensibly requires users to lock to public bike racks or sign poles, in the same fashion as SoBi's non-electric bikes). What users might not realize that the bikes themselves are also vastly cheaper, compared to docked equipment. When, in 2016, I asked for quotes on buying new traditional bikeshare bikes—the PBSC tanks, SoBi’s pre-Jump “smart bikes,” B-Cycle’s cruisers—I received figures north of $2,000. Each. (A representative from PBSC now tells me that prices have come down considerably since then.*) The hardwired, kiosked “smart” docks at which most of those bikes are required to park are even more expensive.
The high cost factor is important, because it affects the size and shape of a city’s network—a topic of great interest among those concerned about equity issues. The National Association of City Transportation Officials guidelines recommend that bikeshare stations be no more than 0.4 miles apart. At that density, most cities simply can’t or won’t fund bikeshare systems at the scale required to have truly comprehensive, equitable networks well-integrated with common destinations and existing transit.
In Cleveland, for example, there are only 250 bikes and 29 stations to cover a city of 385,000 and 82.5 square miles. Even when we dropped all out-of-hub fees and allowed people on all membership plans to lock our bikes anywhere for no additional cost (an early attempt to simulate one of dockless’ most convenient features, enabled by Social Bicycles’ lock-anywhere smartbikes) we weren’t able to extend the coverage into the city’s less-affluent neighborhoods in a meaningful fashion. It was also difficult to conduct traditional forms of outreach, like lunch-and-learns and tabling at events, because our bikes were such a limited commodity.
Even systems that are robustly funded and popular, as in New York, Minneapolis, and D.C., leave big swaths of their cities without access to bikeshare.
Critics may fear that the cheaper, more unruly dockless bikes now appearing in in D.C. and elsewhere herald a second, more-intense wave of begriming the public realm. But it’s the first real hope the industry has had to meet either the demands of users who are hungry for expansions, or the cultural standards leveled at bikeshare (to be equitable, to be accessible, and to be available on-demand—often at a profit).
Early data from D.C.’s dockless pilot program has indicated that not only are people riding dockless, ridership on Capital Bikeshare is up as compared to this time last year. In other words, access to bikeshare seems to feed a demand for more bikeshare, and the easiest way to achieve that in more cities is with dockless equipment, or a mix of the two models.
What cities can do next
The future of this shared transportation is more likely to be a melange of mobility devices, including bikeshare, than a single type of equipment procured by a municipality, then operated by a third party. Uber’s acquisition of Jump isn’t so much a story about bikesharing, but a milestone for the rise of urban electric bicycles specifically. Rival company LimeBike is also introducing the motor-assisted cycles, which arrive with specific implications on public space and, as New York City’s debate over e-bike regulations shows, public safety. Dockless electric scooters are cropping up in L.A., San Francisco, and D.C., and cities should figure out how to work with whatever wacky idea—actual hoverboards? Tricycle share? Flying broomsticks?—comes next. This requires a commitment to concepts—however broad—rather than specific operators, equipment, or modes.
There are things cities can do to use their regulatory capacity to encourage this process. In places with constrained space, planners and administrators will need to stand up for what all that data is telling them—that it’s time to take space away from cars to create more space for bikes and bike parking. It would be politically unpopular for D.C., for example, to address the complaints about dockless bikes “cluttering” the sidewalk by removing one parking space per block to install bike racks. But that’s not a reason not to do it, especially now that dockless is showing the latent demand for new ways to move around.
Just because dockless is a surefire way to get more bikes to more people doesn’t mean it should get off scot-free. Cities should fastidiously demand companies share their ridership data, and should hold operators to key performance indicators to keep bikes balanced and accessible. But shaping the behavior of bikeshare operators is, once again, incumbent on creating a built environment that makes more sense than ours do now.
After installing all those hypothetical bike racks, for example, a city could reasonably demand of an operator that a certain percentage of their fleet be balanced to public, on-street bike corrals at any given time. (This would have the added benefit of forcing operators to compete more directly with each other.) Fees per bike could fund the public-sector staff time dedicated to coordinating and overseeing dockless companies. While users seem to have little issue downloading and using multiple apps for multiple operators, a city could require app integration among operators if it felt it was an issue.
For now, cities are the only bodies that can redistribute space away from people in cars to people on bikes, on foot, on scooters, or on whatever strange micromobility device that we can’t yet imagine. Dockless bikes should, rightfully, force a referendum on who we say our streets are for through how we design them.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Citibike was publicly operated. In addition, updated information on the equipment pricing has been added.