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Council approves dockless bike-share pilot and expansion of Austin B-cycle

Friday, February 2, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

City Council on Thursday approved the creation of a pilot program that will allow private companies to put their on-demand rental bikes on city-owned right of way throughout the city.

The vote on the pilot was one of three actions Council took based on recommendations made by Austin Transportation Director Rob Spillar that also included a fast-tracked expansion of Austin B-cycle, the city’s station-based bike-sharing system.

The Transportation Department will conduct a public input process before launching the 12-month pilot, which won’t kick off until “late spring,” according to Spillar.

That would put the new bikes on the ground after South by Southwest, the festival during which several dockless bike-sharing companies attempted to set up shop in Austin without asking permission last year.

The city’s approach to the new transportation option is decidedly more deliberate than that taken by Dallas. Last year, that city opted to simply let bike-sharing companies operate within its limits without any regulatory framework to guide them. That laissez-faire approach resulted in a public backlash against the thousands of colorful bikes cluttering Dallas’ sidewalks.

In addition to greenlighting the dockless pilot and the B-cycle expansion, Council also approved a $30 fee to charge the companies for each bicycle they put on city right of way.

The city estimates that each company could be allowed to have 500 bikes during the pilot program, though that number could change during the public input process.

California-based LimeBike praised Council’s action, saying in an email, “We applaud the city of Austin for welcoming innovation by developing a common-sense regulatory framework for modern mobility options like LimeBike. We look forward to continuing our collaborative discussions with the city so that residents and visitors can rely on LimeBike as their convenient, affordable, sustainable ride around Austin.”

The move also garnered measured plaudits from Elliott McFadden, executive director of Austin B-cycle, who said he is pleased with the “prudent” approach taken by Council.

“Whether it’s competition or complementary, I don’t know the answer to that. But I think the bigger concern is how we’re using public space,” he said.

According to a memo written by Spillar, the $200,000 to expand the Austin B-cycle system will come from funds approved in this year’s budget that would have otherwise gone toward exploring electric bicycle options for B-cycle. The system was originally funded in 2015 with a $908,500 federal grant that came “with the understanding that up to $241,500 in local match requirements” would be raised through private sources by B-cycle’s nonprofit operator, Bike Share of Austin.

Spillar’s memo states that the nonprofit has so far only paid $30,000 of that amount. McFadden told the Austin Monitor that his outfit has raised an extra $40,000 that has yet to be “processed.”

As for the rest, he said, “We have a financially sustainable program. We cover almost our entire budget with ridership revenue, and we’re looking for location-specific and systemwide partners to come in. We’re confident that we’re going to raise that money, but not on the timeline the city wanted.”

During Thursday’s discussion at City Hall, Council Member Ora Houston expressed frustration that Austin B-cycle has nine stations east of Interstate 35, an amount she framed as lacking. The planned expansion of the system could add more to that number though, according to Active Transportation Program Manager Laura Dierenfield.

“We are definitely interested in serving the entire city and expanding where the station-based system is needed and makes sense,” she said. “And that includes where we have our colleges and universities, where we have transit service, and where we have the opportunity to offer short trips to employment and other destinations.”

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