Dockless bike-sharing issues surface at city forum
Thursday, April 5, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard
After more than a yearlong absence, dockless bike-sharing returned to downtown Austin on Wednesday, if only for a few hours.
Representatives from nine different firms that dabble in dockless technology brought their wares and their pitches to the new Central Library for a community forum hosted by the Austin Transportation Department.
The event served as the formal kickoff of the public engagement phase of the department’s ongoing City Council-directed development of a dockless bike-sharing pilot program.
The disruptive mobility service has caught fire worldwide and rose to particular infamy here in Texas when the city of Dallas opted to let dockless operators flood its streets and sidewalks with brightly colored bikes subject to scant regulations.
During the South by Southwest festival in 2017, several dockless companies deployed their two-wheelers in downtown Austin without seeking ATD’s approval, a move that echoed the brazen practices of ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft. Out of concern for public safety, the department swiftly shut down that rogue incursion before allowing a limited pilot program to play out during the remaining days of the festival.
On Wednesday morning, representatives from the nine companies at the library presented a far more cooperative posture.
“The idea, generally, is that we want to be part of the community here in Austin,” LimeBike’s Sam Sadle told the crowd of roughly 100 attendees. “We want to complement the existing mobility options here.”
That sentiment was largely repeated throughout the hourlong pitch session that featured remarks from representatives from eight other bike-sharing companies, including Mobike, Jump, Zagster, ofo, VBikes, Spin, Motivate and BCycle. The latter is the Wisconsin-based company that provides station-based bike-share equipment to the city-owned Austin B-cycle, whose executive director, Elliott McFadden, also addressed the forum.
Another recurring theme held that the dockless concept of free-floating bikes activated generally through smartphones presents an opportunity to expand equity by deploying low-cost transportation solutions to areas where Austin B-cycle may never penetrate. Several representatives also brought up data-sharing opportunities that could help ATD better understand where to make bicycle infrastructure investments.
However, not everyone on hand was so confident about that latter point.
“Everyone talks about sharing data, but the reality is the dockless companies are not making their data open,” Julie Wood of Motivate told the crowd. Her company currently operates station-based systems in cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago but has plans to begin operations later this year in Minneapolis, where it will take over the city’s station-based system and eventually transition it to dockless. That exclusive partnership will allow Motivate to make its ridership data publicly available online, Wood said.
While dockless presents new opportunities to track geographic data about each bicycle, it also raises questions about how the personal data of each user will be handled.
“A big problem of that data being shared with the city is that generally it’s our policy to provide open data,” Gillian Gillett, San Francisco’s director of transportation policy, told the crowd during a policy discussion following the pitch session. “So if someone gives us data and then someone else asks for it, we have to give it to them.”
She also cautioned that the dockless companies could be creating a business model based on monetizing user information.
“It’s really important to know that you are the product,” she said.
Mostly absent from Wednesday’s forum was any mention of dockless scooters, an even newer technology that is now available in a growing number of cities. The resolution Council approved in February calling for the development of the pilot program specifically and exclusively refers to dockless bike-sharing. That would appear to have foreclosed on free-floating scooters making it onto city streets anytime soon.
“I don’t see it being part of this particular pilot demonstration, as we really are focused on bicycle mobility. I think they’re very different,” ATD’s Active Transportation Program Manager Laura Dierenfield told the Austin Monitor. However, she added that the department is still receptive to talks with companies providing that service.
“It’s really too early to tell where that will go, but we are definitely interested in learning more,” she said.
Starting next week, Dierenfield and her team will hold five community feedback sessions at locations across the city before assembling a draft version of the pilot program. Council’s Mobility Committee is scheduled to receive a briefing on that effort at its June 21 meeting.
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