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Thursday, December 21, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

City tentatively talks about dockless bike-sharing

The Austin Transportation Department is taking a studious approach to the dockless bike-sharing companies that have swooped into cities throughout the world in 2017.

Active Transportation Program Manager Laura Dierenfield brought the Bicycle Advisory Council into the conversation on Wednesday night with a discussion that Dierenfield framed as part of an evaluation process aimed at clearing up questions staff first grappled with when a handful of firms dropped their app-activated two-wheelers onto city streets during the South by Southwest festival earlier this year.

After that rogue incursion ended, the city has kept the companies at bay even as they began to set up shop in cities such as Dallas, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

“That change in how bike-share is being delivered in cities across North America has prompted us as the Austin Transportation Department to do an evaluation of our current policy and programming around bike-sharing as well as try to do what we can to understand, study, observe what’s going on around us in our peer cities across” the world, Dierenfield told the BAC.

Unlike Austin B-cycle, the city’s sanctioned bike-sharing partner that relies on fixed locations, dockless companies deploy their bicycles freely throughout a given area. Customers use an app to locate them and check them out by remotely deactivating a rear wheel lock. When the riders reach their destination, they simply reactivate the lock and walk away.

Also unlike B-cycle, the dockless systems require a huge number of bikes to achieve effective coverage and availability. That aspect has led to heavy criticism in cities such as Dallas where it’s not uncommon to find sidewalks littered with poorly parked, toppled and occasionally damaged bicycles. Vandals have also taken to throwing the bikes into rivers, hanging them in trees or stacking them in piles.

“If you can leave a bike anywhere, they just end up everywhere,” Austin B-cycle Executive Director Elliott McFadden told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday before the BAC meeting. McFadden’s nonprofit operates the B-cycle program on behalf of the city, which owns the bikes and stations.

McFadden, who also founded the North American Bikeshare Association trade group, evinced heavy skepticism of the for-profit dockless model. He pointed to Bluegogo, one of the largest bike-sharing firms in the world before it collapsed last month taking with it potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in customer deposits but leaving thousands of bicycles on public streets for host cities to deal with.

The unanswered regulatory questions about an explosive sector soaked in venture capital makes McFadden squeamish about rushing to put together a dockless pilot program in Austin, he said.

“It just seems to us like a bunch of other cities are trying this out and they’re having headaches. Let them deal with that,” said McFadden. “If this is really going to be the thing of the future, taking the time to make sure we get it right seems like the right way to go.”

McFadden aired those sentiments at Wednesday’s BAC meeting, where members seemed both intrigued and concerned about the dockless concept.

Also on hand was Servando Esparza, the regional policy manager for Ofo, the Chinese-based firm that Esparza claimed is the largest dockless bike-sharing company in the world. He reminded the BAC that Ofo was among the companies that showed up without permission during SXSW.

“But we have learned our lesson and we want to be a part of the process,” he said, adding the quality of Ofo’s bikes a common target of complaint against dockless bike-sharing in general has improved since the spring festival.

BAC member Eryn Moris asked Esparza how his company could prevent users or vandals from leaving the bicycles in unwanted locations or in disrepair. When he suggested educational efforts via placards or rule notifications delivered via the app, Moris pressed him, asking how the company enforces the rules.

“That’s up to our rebalancing team,” Esparza replied, referring to the employees who drive around ensuring an even distribution of the dockless bikes. If the team sees a bike in a tree, for example, it can report the incident and the most recent user can be identified.

Esparza said that Ofo launched in Dallas with 1,000 bikes and a 10-member rebalancing team.

BAC member Katie Smith Deolloz enthusiastically recounted her experience with dockless systems in Dallas and Washington, D.C. However, she raised concerns about the quality of the bikes and suggested that limits to fleet numbers could reduce the visual clutter.

Nonetheless, she declared, “As an entrepreneur, I just love it. I’m so excited. I know that there are going to be mistakes, and mistakes have been made and we’re already learning from those, but I cannot wait to see what comes.”

Along with Ofo, the city has also communicated with California-based LimeBike about potentially developing a pilot program. That company’s director of strategic development told the Monitor that he sees dockless systems as a way to augment the city’s station-based B-cycle option.

“We’re excited to work with the city of Austin and look forward to providing transportation solutions to the entire community,” Sam Sadle said.

Despite the eagerness of some stakeholders to get started, Dierenfield said there is no projected timeline for putting dockless bike-share bicycles on Austin’s streets.

Photo by Caleb Pritchard.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Bicycle Advisory Commission

Transportation Department: This city department is responsible for municipal transportation planning including roadways and bikeways.

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