The Dockless Bike Share Revolution

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

Is Dockless Bike Share Right for Your Community?

By New Mobility Group

Shared-use mobility is part of a larger movement toward a “shared economy” and “collaborative consumption” (think Airbnb, Zipcar, Lyft, etc). Within that realm, the mobility sector is one of the fastest-growing segments based on revenue. By the year 2025, shared mobility will be a sector worth more than $35 billion.

The growth in shared-use mobility is changing transportation planning in a dramatic way — with a direct benefit for active transportation and transit. The more people use shared modes, the more likely they are to use public transit, own fewer cars, and spend less on transportation overall.

The best transportation planning not only accounts for multiple modes of travel, but also considers the users who are making daily and even hourly decisions about how to get around.

Bike sharing, like car and ride sharing, is experiencing phenomenal growth. Ridership grew from 320,000 trips in 2010 to 28 million trips in 2016 according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). With the emergence of dockless (or stationless) bike share, cities and campuses have even more choice for on-demand mobility.

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

Bike share originally gained prominence globally as station-based systems. The model is based on users checking a bicycle out from one station and returning it to another station close to their destination. Using smart phone apps, users identify the closest station for each end of the trip. These users can be tourists renting a bike for a couple of hours, or daily commuters.

With the rise of dockless systems, bike share has nearly come full circle. From “yellow bikes” to station-based to hybrid (smart dock + smart bike) systems, this recent rapid innovation is taking bike share into new territory, in an effort to capitalize on the strengths of each previous version.

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

Dockless Bike Share

As the name suggests, dockless bike share does not require a docking station — an expense that could sometimes limit the number of bikes a city could afford. With dockless systems, bicycles can be parked within a defined district at a bike rack or along the sidewalk. Dockless bikes can be located and unlocked using a smartphone app.

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

Dockless bike share is designed for short, spontaneous trips. While the cost of using traditional bike share for a single trip (typically, $7/day) could be seen as a barrier to ridership, most dockless bike share models offer single trips for $1. Although $1 per ride isn’t great for multiple trips in one day, it is great for that one way trip for a tourist, to cruise around shortly, or the quick ride to meet friends or ride to a meeting. To address more frequent users, LimeBike offers a monthly package of $30/100 rides.

Dockless bike share adds even more convenience for users who no longer need to worry about empty bike share stations at the front end of the trip, or full stations upon arrival. However, this convenience for users can be a problem for both system operators (who must rebalance bikes to meet demand) and cities (who must manage a clutter of bicycles on sidewalks already under pressure from competing uses). The wide, scattered nature of operations also poses drawbacks related to maintenance, bicycle durability, economic sustainability, and potential lack of visibility that established stations provide.

Misplacement of dockless bikes can be a real issue. To manage parking issues, cities and operators can institute incentives and disincentives as part of a regulatory framework. Several operators like oBike and LimeBike give credit points for returning to bikes to a designated parking location.

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

Mobike, which operates more than five million bikes and has 100 million registered users (taking 25 million trips per day at peak times), encourages users to park at Mobike Preferred Locations (MPL) and provides bike parking best practices on their website. The company also offers incentives for reporting bad parking practices, stating in their company FAQ, “If you see any illegal or poorly parked Mobike, please send us feedback and you will be rewarded with Mobike Credits.”

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design
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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

Bike Share Disruption

Early dockless bike share operators did not consult with cities, but rather distributed bicycles in cities like Austin, Texas without permission (or even an early warning). Most operators now know they must work with cities to manage the launch and growth of a system.

“Bike-share systems have a strong role to play in a city’s transportation network. But, by starting up without invitation or coordination, these companies have shown that they are not serious about providing bikes as a real mobility option for people. Instead, their actions suggest that they are more interested in media attention and a quick buyout. Such fly-by-night operations put the public at risk.” — NACTO

While adding complexity, dockless bike share systems, such as Jump, Spin, and LimeBike, pose both benefits and challenges. Coordination between cities and operators is key for successful systems.

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

Collaboration is Key to Success

Seattle, which suspended its first bike share system Pronto, is now working with Spin and LimeBike, two popular dockless systems that launched mid-2017, and Ofo, a third dockless system that launched on August 18, 2017. Spin has worked with the City of San Francisco on a sequential series of launches to test and manage system growth. In Greensboro, North Carolina, LimeBike worked with the University of NC- Greensboro first on a campus, and later, with an expansion into the city. LimeBike is also working with a Business Improvement District in South Bend, Indiana.

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

Because of the added complexity, dockless bike share requires a planning approach that’s a win-win-win for users, cities, and operators. Below are six steps cities, towns, and university/corporate campuses can take to get started.

Dockless Bike Share Planning

1. Set Program Goals: A city or campus needs to review overall program goals for mobility and how dockless bike share fits into the overall system. For example, cities may want to prioritize equitable access, public health programs or specific traffic reduction goals.

2. Create a Policy Framework: Your city will need to establish a regulatory framework. Seattle, Washington for example, requires operators to obtain a permit that covers safety, parking, insurance requirements, operations, and data sharing with the city. Your city will need to review existing contracts with bike share and bike rental companies.

3. Establish System Boundaries: For system planning, most operators work with cities on boundaries for both testing pilots and program growth. Using geofencing technology, operators collect (and share) data that tracks usage, routes, system problems and more. In fact, the sheer amount of data points to the need for careful planning data collection, privacy, analysis, storage, and decision support.

Access to data also means that cities can establish and track performance metrics related to dockless systems and bicycling overall. We can collect hyper-local information about existing conditions, bike behavior, routes, weather, time of day when people are riding, and demographics. We can then use this context specific data to inform our route planning and infrastructure investments.

This will help determine the feasibility of expanding service and identify investments for improving streets, bike lanes, and trails. These results can be further used to track other goals such as carbon reduction or economic activity related to bike share.

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design
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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design
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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

4. Focus on Bike Parking: In most cases, the greatest challenge is parking. All stakeholders need to establish, early on, that dockless does not mean users are able to leave bikes anywhere (an on-going problem as bikes are left in rivers and hanging in trees). In fact, dockless bike share is likely to spur expanded design and policy for bicycle parking and infrastructure overall. In the near term, cities can fast-track bicycle corrals and find more efficient design options close to bike lanes and trails. Over time, cities may replace on-street parking or work with building operators with excess parking.

Bike parking should typically be located in areas where users are likely to check out or return a bike, for example near transit stations, civic buildings, and entertainment venues.

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design
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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design
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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

Alternative approaches to physical bike racks may include using GPS geofences (like Social Bicycles) to create pseudo stations/discreet areas to park bikes or painting rectangles on the ground to designate parking areas.

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

5. Integrate Programs: In many cities, transportation requires owning a car; other options are either insufficient or simply not available. The integration of New Mobility, mobility-on-demand models, and seamless transport apps will substantially increase the share of trips that are multimodal. Furthermore, the growth of “Mobility as a service” (MaaS) — or private companies supplying transportation and transit as a service — will continue to blur the lines between private and public transport.

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

Cities will need to integrate dockless bike sharing into their overall mobility programs, including Transportation Demand Management, First/Last Mile, and transit system plans. Cities with existing station-based systems may play host to both station and dockless bike share options.

6. Continuously Monitor, Improve and Innovate: Dockless bike share systems face a lot of challenges. For example, supplying enough staff to constantly rebalance bicycles may become economically infeasible. However, there may be possibilities for new mobile docking stations that allow rebalancing of many bikes at once. Using data to rebalance strategically will be key to success.

Another challenge is that the public may not tolerate a growing number of idle bicycles on sidewalks. To encourage proper bike parking, companies can offer incentives for users to place bicycles in preferred areas and discourage misplacement. There are also endless opportunities for encouragement programs to get more people to participate — from challenges and scavenger hunts to gamifying bike races (similar to Pokémon Go) or coordinating with local businesses around events— all of which can be planned and initiated using push notifications.

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

Is Dockless Bike Share Right for Your Community?

Dockless bike share has the potential to further stoke demand for bicycling, and in turn, for improved bicycle infrastructure. It also has the potential to help cities raise the profile of bicycling as a key element of the transportation portfolio.

“Bike share programs increase the visibility of cyclists, making riding safer for everyone. The risk of a bicyclist being struck by a motorist declines as the number of people biking increases. Appropriately scaled bike share systems can dramatically increase the total number of people on bikes in a city and help build political momentum for bike lanes.” — NACTO

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LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

With good planning and supportive partnerships, cities can get off on the right foot (or pedal) for building systems that work for everyone.

As a first mover in bike share systems, Alta knows what it takes to build, grow and integrate shared-use into mobility systems. We are exploring opportunities to partner with communities on pilot programs and fast action planning to harness the benefits of this new technology, as well as seeking opportunities to deploy dockless bikes for data collection to inform route planning and infrastructure investments. For more information, reach out to our New Mobility Group.

Go to the profile of Alta Planning + Design
LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design
Go to the profile of Alta Planning + Design
LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design
Go to the profile of Alta Planning + Design
LimeBike in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Alta Planning + Design

What are your thoughts or concerns about dockless bike share? Let us know in the comments below.