New York City is dipping its toe in the dockless scene. NYC Mayor's Office

The strategy: Keep free-range riders off Citi Bike’s turf.

Until now, New York City has been largely left out of the dockless bike party. On the West Coast, the grab-and-go wheels have swarmed the streets of Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, battling for space with their polarizing siblings, electric scooters. Since September, Washington, D.C., has hosted several dockless bike companies, which have been credited with reaching a more diverse base of riders than the city’s docked bikeshare system. Chicago has recently gotten in on the action, via a pilot program introducing dockless cycles to the city’s South Side. And the dueling ride-hailing goliaths Uber and Lyft have both leaped into the bikesharing fray, in their respective efforts to dominate the shared mobility market.

But America’s most populous city, home of the nation’s largest bikeshare program with the dock-based Citi Bike (which completed 60 million rides in June), has so far avoided DoBi Fever. And that’s very much by design: Transit officials here have kept a tight grip on Gotham’s streets, even going so far as sending a cease-and-desist letter to dockless operator Spin, who tried to blitz the city with its bikes last August. That finally changed last week.

On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Polly Trottenberg respectively rode Pace and Lime bikes up and down the renowned boardwalk of the Rockaways in Queens. The sunny photo spray was part of the city’s unveiling of its first official dockless bike program, which comes a few months after City Hall gauged requests from 12 operators for access to what could be, arguably, the biggest dockless market in the country. In the end, five companies were chosen.

But New York’s dabbling with docklessness comes with a twist: Instead of letting the free-range bikes loose on the city’s increasingly congested streets—which is already a legal mess for pedal-assist bikes and e-bikes, as CityLab has reported—transit officials have designated special zones in which the bikes, at least in the pilot phase, will be allowed to operate. And the first four are far from the busiest parts of Manhattan. Instead, the bikes are restricted to neighborhoods outside of the realm of Citi Bike and its network of stations, where it can be time-consuming to get from point A to point B with existing mass transit.

“In your mind you would have seen it in Midtown Manhattan or Lower Manhattan, but you would not have assumed it would be in the Rockaways,” Mayor de Blasio said at the event. He added later, “A lot of neighborhoods and a lot of places in the city that didn’t get to go first are now going to get to go first and have this extraordinary amenity and this new technology available to them.”

The beachside community of the Rockaways will be first to get the dockless bikes. Then, later in July, bikes provided by the Uber-owned JUMP and Lime will arrive on the North Shore of Staten Island, near the ferry terminal, which is an area largely serviced by buses. Then the Fordham section of the Bronx, outside of the university—another neighborhood where vast stretches exist between subway stops—will see bikes from the Beijing-based ofo and JUMP. Finally, the famous Coney Island will be the test area later this year for dockless bikes from Motivate, the parent company of Citi Bike that was recently acquired by Lyft.

The strategy is similar to the one taken taken by Chicago, which has limited dockless services to a geographically circumscribed pilot area that’s home to many lower-income residents. And it’s also very much in keeping with the notion that these services have a specific advantage over traditional docked networks in addressing equity issues, filling gaps in public transit and bringing mobility to a more diverse user base. Just yesterday, Lyft announced that bikes and scooters will become a key part of their transportation equity platform, and that it’d invest $1 million for communities underserved by transit.

The Rockaways should be a good place to demonstrate the value of dockless bikes. A thin strip of land, never more than three or four avenues wide, the town was heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy six years ago but has rebounded: Each weekend, New Yorkers flood the boardwalk here to sunbathe, surf, and eat at dozens of pop-up shops transplanted from Brooklyn and Manhattan. Yet public transit on the peninsula itself isn’t the most sufficient. The A train shuffles in from mainland Queens, but it’s the New York City subway, so weekend service is synonymous with “Who knows?” The NYC Ferry has been a boon for visitors, but deposits them in the middle of the peninsula. And the most popular areas, like Jacob Riis Park and Fort Tilden, are further west, past the subway stops and ferry landing: They require a bus transfer and a fairly far walk to access.

“At ten miles long, the Rockaway Peninsula offers tremendous opportunities … but distances are often just too long to walk,” said DOT Commissioner Trottenberg. “With a dockless bike, the miles from Jacob Riis Park to the A train or from the NYC Ferry dock to one of many great restaurants will seem so much more conquerable and fun.”

Under the new dockless program, nearly the entire span of the Rockaways is self-contained to both Lime and Pace bikes, which will provide 400 bikes in total. Pace has 50 traditional bikes available now, with another 150 hitting the streets in the next few days. Lime will have 100 traditional bikes as well as 100 electric pedal-assist bikes, which will become available to riders once the new rules over e-bikes become law on July 28. In a statement to CityLab, Lime New York general manager Gil Kazimirov touted the company’s wares as first-and-last-mile solutions for neighborhood transitgoers. “New Yorkers whose communities are underserved by mass transit will particularly benefit from our dock-free bikes,” he said. “We are very excited to deliver this innovative service to those New Yorkers who need it the most.”

As many users know, the bikes are unlocked by downloading the app, adding some dollars, and finding the bikes on the map. While each cost $1 for 30 minutes of riding and have $3 minimums*, Lime and Pace have somewhat different processes: Lime bikes are unlocked via QR code; Pace bikes need to be physically locked up with a provided cable at the end by users. (Separately, Lime’s pedal-assist bikes will be $1 to unlock, and 15 cents-a-minute after.)

Transit advocates have applauded the decision to add dockless bikes to NYC’s mobility mix—and used the announcement as a means to push City Hall to make the streets more bike-friendly and safe to everyone. “Just because they don’t require docks doesn’t mean the city doesn't need to provide space for them on the streets,” Joseph Cutrufo, the communications director of Transportation Alternatives, a transit advocacy group, told CityLab. “Ideally we would daylight intersections and install bike corrals at the corners—not just making space for bikes, but also making it easier for drivers to see pedestrians.”

The strategy of restricting the new dockless cycles to the city’s transit-starved fringes seems to make sense for this moment in New York, when the public’s trust in mass transit is abysmally low. It’s highly unlikely that the city is building new subways or significantly improving in service anytime soon, and the bus network is only just now starting its planned redesign. There is also a fragile balance that the city had to strike: Do not infringe upon Citi Bike’s massive turf, do not anger pedestrians who are already fuming over the growing number of e-bikes and pedal-assists, and do not make the streets more crowded than they already are.

And so, using the mode of micro-mobility in a very targeted manner to plug up transit gaps that would’ve likely yawned open for years to come is oddly refreshing, at a time when using New York City transit can feel anything but.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Pace bike rentals had a $10 minimum.

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