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Dockless bike-share pilot development rolls forward

Monday, March 26, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

More than a year after an aborted attempt to move into Austin without permission, several dockless bike-sharing companies have switched gears and are now patiently working with the Transportation Department as it develops a pilot program that could put the smartphone-activated two-wheelers on city streets by this summer.

On Wednesday night, Active Transportation Program Manager Laura Dierenfield told the Austin Monitor that as many as six companies – including prominent Spin, Ofo and LimeBike – have asked to participate in an upcoming community forum in which each will be able to pitch its unique concept to residents.

Dierenfield and David Orr, the city’s bike-share program manager, were both at City Hall to brief the Downtown Commission on the development of the pilot program that City Council commissioned early last month. It was the last citizens commission to receive the briefing before staff turns the next phase of public engagement, which includes the community forum scheduled for April 4.

Early in his presentation, Orr brought up the dockless invasion of Dallas, a city whose laissez-faire approach led to several companies dumping tens of thousands of their bikes on city streets, stirring up a public outcry over unsightly clutter, blocked sidewalks and vandalized bikes.

“The goal of our program is to minimize those kinds of problems,” Orr asserted.

He explained that the pilot would seek to ensure orderly parking, safely constructed bikes, and quick and decisive accountability on the parts of the companies. In exchange, the city hopes to augment the geographic coverage of bike-sharing, which is currently limited to the 64-station footprint of Austin B-cycle, the city-backed station-based system.

The pilot could require the companies to put up a performance bond, maintain a capped number of bicycles (perhaps based on the number of employees available to police them), share their data, or even provide parking solutions such as new racks.

The public engagement process will continue through May. In addition to the April 4 forum, staff will engage in four community listening sessions as well as brief Council’s Mobility Committee at its April 17 June 21 meeting.

Commissioner Megan Meisenbach told Orr and Dierenfield that she had recently visited Seattle, where dockless companies operate under a more regulated structure compared to Dallas. Nonetheless, she said, “There were many, many yellow and green bikes left just everywhere. And there seemed to be more left than there were riders. And almost no one had a helmet. I think that should be looked into.”

Commissioner Timothy Moore said he had trouble grasping the contours of what he described as the “overlapping circles” of the two types of bike-sharing.

“What does dockless do that docked doesn’t do, and what does docked do that dockless doesn’t do?” he asked. “If (dockless) meets all the needs that docked-based does, then why do we need dock-based at all?”

Dierenfield explained that both types have key distinctions. Station-based systems, for example, provide predictability with fixed locations, whereas dockless companies can scale up quickly to meet surges in demand.

Council’s action to initiate the pilot also included orders to fast-track the expansion of the B-cycle system. Combining $200,000 in local funds with a federal grant, the station-based nonprofit will be able to spend more than $1 million on 18 new stations stuffed with 125 new bikes, Dierenfield told the Monitor.

The April 4 community forum will be held from 7:30 to 10 a.m. at the new Central Library downtown. Additionally, the Transportation Department will livestream the event on its Facebook page.

Photo by Caleb Pritchard.

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