A pilot program on the South Side aims to expand beyond the reach of the city’s docked system. But will lock-to requirements and other regulations allow for enough bikes to be useful?
Last week, Chicago let dockless bikesharing companies into the city. But in an effort to head off the dockless “nuisance” debate that has led to a backlash in other cities, it’s put the wanderlusty bikes on a pretty short leash. The small pilot, which runs from May to November, is limited to the city’s South Side, and riders can’t just abandon their ride wherever they want. To cut down on bike clutter, the city is trying something new: requiring dockless bikes to be locked to racks or street signs when not in use.
It’s a cautious trial influenced by the dockless dialogue in other cities, including a lot of hand wringing about right-of-way usage—from “bike litter” in Dallas, the scooter-scolding of San Francisco, and the creative parking shaming in Seattle. The city’s permit announcement lets on about its anxieties about sidewalk clutter:
In our conversations with stakeholders including local residents, advocates, and in speaking with other cities that have implemented or are considering similar dockless bike-share pilot programs, right-of-way usage was raised as a serious issue to consider. The lock-to requirement, along with other requirements in the permit, establish a baseline standard that will help address right-of-way usage issues that may arise, for example, if a stray bike left in the right-of-way.
That lock-to requirement offers an advantage for dockless bike companies that already feature built-in cable locks or U-locks on their bikes. That includes Pace, a dockless brand spun out of Boston-based bikeshare company Zagster, and Jump, the dockless e-bike company recently acquired by Uber. It’s a bit more of a hassle for vendors of free-floating cycles like LimeBike and Ofo, which both use wheel-locks that allow them to park anywhere. The city will allow companies that meet that “lock-to” condition to operate with 250 bikes, while the free-floating companies will be limited to 50 bikes until July. At that point they’ll need to retrofit their bikes to stay in compliance with the city.
Pace, LimeBike, and Ofo have launched in the last week the South Side, while Jump is waiting at the gate as paperwork moves along.
Tim Alborg, Pace’s director of public policy, says the lock-to requirement focuses on sharing the city. “You have a busier environment in which you want to make sure everyone benefits in the transportation space,” he says. “In a denser city, there’s more pedestrians, more people with disabilities, and more people using transit.”
But Alborg argues the lock-to feature is an easy fix to a potential bikelash irritant. “We find that less than 4 percent of our bikes are being improperly parked. There was an independent study that found almost 30 percent of the free-floating dockless bikes in Seattle and Washington, D.C., were improperly parked,” he says.
But LimeBike, which also launched last week, thinks it can prove the value of lockless bikes. “It’s on us to prove that our operational model and operational game is up to the challenge of operating in the city,” says Gabriel Scheer, who heads up LimeBike’s government relations in Chicago.
Scheer says the “bike blight” narrative misses the chance to get people to reimagine places that were designed around the car, like the South Side. “Why are we calling it ‘bike clutter’? If you look at any city, it is full of cars because that’s how we designed it for 120 years.” (Park your favorite dockless car joke here.)
Even the legitimate problem of keeping sidewalks accessible is a pretty easy fix, Scheer says. “We’ve worked closely with cities to protect access to sidewalks or respond when bikes have been tipped over. We’ve added gyroscopes to our bikes so we can tell when they’re tipped over. There are technological solutions that address the problem.”
A cap on the numbers of bikes means there will be somewhere between 500 and 1,000 possible dockless bikes by July. Chicago’s pilot permit has a much smaller footprint, even compared to cities where dockless pilots are complementing established station systems, as in D.C. and Boston. With so few bikes scattered across 10 wards, there might be a limit to what can be learned from the pilot. Estimates of an ideal network of bikeshare bikes range vary widely. The Institution for Transportation and Development Policy recommends a ratio of 1 to 3 bikes per 100 residents for docked systems; in some Chinese cities, the dockless ratio is more like 1 bike for every 16 people or even more, leading to scenes like this.
Chicago isn’t likely to approach that sort of bikeshare saturation any time soon, and the city will also require companies to redistribute bikes evenly across the neighborhoods, to further fend off bike clutter. “The South Side of Chicago is as big as some cities geographically. The pilot project alone in Chicago is about the size of Washington, D.C., but less walkable,” says Ron Burke, the executive director of the Chicago-based Active Transportation Alliance. Burke says he thinks the city might reconsider some of the regulations as time goes on.
“That’s kind of the Chicago way. You know, we weren’t the first out of the gate with docked bikeshare either. The city made a decision to wait. As they described it, ‘let other people make the mistake and let’s learn from that.’”
But another big-city concern might also be limiting the pilot: The city already has the second-largest station-based bikeshare program in the U.S., Divvy, which launched in 2013. That 5,800-bicycle system is operated by New York-based Motivate. Meanwhile, the dockless pilot is operating entirely in the South Side, where there’s very little overlap into Divvy turf.
“I think the big question is, what are the right set of policies to make sure that private-venture-backed dockless companies complement and add to the ecosystem of bikeshare in the long run,” Burke says. “Right now, the Divvy system covers about 45 percent of the city's land mass. We’ve always had a goal in getting 100 percent coverage for the city, or pretty close to it. If dockless companies can help us grow a network more quickly, that would be great.”
Dockless bikesharing has increased the number of bikes dramatically, nearly doubling the number of shared bikes by adding 44,000 of the dock-free bikes in United States, according a new report from the National Association of City Transportation Officials. But docked systems still make up the vast majority of trips—New York City’s Citi Bike, Chicago’s Divvy, Washington’s Capital Bikeshare, and Boston’s recently rebranded Blue Bikes—all operated by Motivate—made up 74 percent of all American bikeshare trips in 2017. (However, many of the largest city dockless pilots didn’t begin until the second half of last year.) Only D.C. has allowed dockless bikes to operate where docked systems already exist.
There’s an appetite for access to those markets for the venture-capital funded startups looking to grow. But those bigger cities are angling to get dockless companies to fill the gaps and expand service beyond their city-owned systems. One local bike advocate told the Chicago Tribune the city has the right to be picky, given its size and how many companies want to operate there. Boston relegated its dockless pilot to the suburbs. Meanwhile, the NYC Department of Transportation has 12 different companies asking to pilot dockless bikeshare this year in outer-borough neighborhoods that Citi Bike has not yet reached—including in the Bronx and on Staten Island. The program in the South Side, along with companies like Ofo and Jump donating to a bike library aimed at helping low-income users try dockless bikes, represents the first city dockless permit explicitly aimed at expanding coverage to underserved neighborhoods.
LimeBike’s Scheer says it’s not a bad idea for the cities to be steering companies toward the public goals they want to achieve. “Cities are resource constrained, especially in the Trump era,” Scheer says. “The costs for systems won’t come from the federal government. So how do you take advantage of the venture dollars funneling into alternative mobility solutions? How do we partner as a city with providers to better move people, reduce carbon, and increase equity? I think the South Side is a good place to try.”