A Mobike bike. Image by rulch_whx licensed under Creative Commons.

DC could soon get a new kind of bike sharing from a Chinese company, Mobike, which has advertised for two job positions here. Would that be good or bad for bicycling and transportation?

Mobike operates in 130 cities in China, Japan, Singapore, and the UK. Unlike systems like Capital Bikeshare, which use fixed docks, it's “dockless,” meaning you can park a bike anywhere. You find bikes using an app, and when you get to one, unlock it by scanning a QR code. In China, it costs 1 RMB (about 15 cents) per 30 minutes, and doesn't use the membership structure of Capital Bikeshare.

Mobike doesn't disclose its numbers, but The Guardian reported it has over a million bikes in China, including over 100,000 each in the (huge) cities of Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.

Dockless bikeshare could be great

Dockless bikeshare can have some advantages, like not needing stations, and can be cheaper. Plus, these companies aren't asking for financial subsidy. Since public dollars are one limitation on the size of bikeshare today, the idea of systems which can operate unsubsidized, and potentially at much greater scale, is appealing.

Capital Bikeshare has already brought positive impacts to the Washington area. In neighborhoods where it launched, traffic decreased 4%. Could cheaper bikeshare bring even more people to bicycling?

Without maintenance, rebalancing, and equity, dockless bikeshare could be a disaster

However, transportation planners worry that unregulated dockless bikeshare could bring a host of problems—and has in some other cities, especially in China.

Much of the cost of bikeshare comes from the staff needed to rebalance bikes, from the bikes which need to be more durable than a personal bike, and from maintaining and repairing the bikes.

This new wave of systems, which includes companies like Ofo and Bluegogo, have launched without consulting with the local government or getting permits. For that reason, many detractors have labeled them “rogue bikeshare.” Of course, you don't need permission to start most kinds of businesses in DC, but bikeshare is a business which very much depends on public space, both roadways for riding and off-road public space for parking.

Image by MNXANL licensed under Creative Commons.

Here are some of the concerns:

Piles of bikes: In Shenzhen, news organizations shared photos of huge piles of abandoned bikes from these systems choking a public park entrance. Bluegogo launched in San Francisco earlier this spring, and after numerous complaints about bicycles abandoned on the sidewalk in the Castro district, Bluegogo ultimately closed up shop there.

Bikes could quickly overwhelm places like Metro station entrances, tourist destinations, and sporting events if people really can leave them anywhere. How will cities reasonably manage where the bikes are and aren't parked, and who will pay for the inspections and enforcement necessary?

We could imagine the apps limiting where you can leave a bike, but then it's turning into a hybrid dockless system like Zagster, which runs the mBike system with 163 bikes in and around College Park. Zagster bikes don't require a complex dock, but you still can only start and end your trip at designated locations; you can, however, lock up the bike anywhere if you stop somewhere in between.

Capital Bikeshare also spends considerable resources rebalancing bikes. Many fear that “rogue” systems won't do this rebalancing. Then, all the bikes might just end up going downhill, which here means to downtown DC and not going the other way.

Safety: According to Karina Ricks, Pittsburgh's Director of Mobility and Infrastructure (and former planning head at DDOT), the bikes from these new startups cost as little as $300 each, compared to about $1,200-2,000 each for systems like Capital Bikeshare. Cheaper manufacturing is good, but not if the bikes easily break, or particularly if they become unsafe.

At a recent “pop-up” unregulated bikeshare pilot in Austin for SXSW, people found a lot of broken bikes:

There's a reason that Capital Bikeshare's bikes and those of similar systems cost a lot more: They're built to handle a lot of riders, in all weather, outside 24-7, for a long time. Perhaps with competition some company could build a better product for less, but critics say the “rogue” companies are just dropping junk on the streets.

US cities will want to ensure that these systems are prepared to keep their bikes maintained and remove broken ones, wherever they may be. If the system isn't budgeting for this and expecting the local municipality to shoulder the burden, that would be a huge problem.

Equity: Cities and counties have expended resources to place Capital Bikeshare stations in lower-income areas where fewer people can afford memberships (and programs to help residents get free or discounted memberships). DC required car2go to offer service in the entire city, not just restrict cars to affluent areas, as a condition of getting its needed parking permits.

Besides low-income areas, there are just a lot of neighborhoods where bikeshare is less profitable, and local jurisdictions are ensuring there's some service there, too. Will dockless systems ensure the same level of service in the same areas?

If they don't, there's a danger they they'll out-compete Capital Bikeshare, which is shouldering these costs, leading to cuts in publicly-funded systems leaving holes that these new operators don't fill. Plus, there's no guarantee these startups will survive and become profitable. This could leave people in many areas with even worse transportation options than before.

Cities quickly pass rules for dockless bikeshare

In San Francisco, Bluegogo first made brash pronouncements about placing thousands of bikes on city streets. The city quickly moved to impose permit requirements for these systems, after which Bluegogo pulled out. It's now opened up a permit process, and three companies reportedly are interested in starting service (but not Bluegogo).

Seattle recently passed its own regulations allowing bikeshare entrepreurship but with conditions. Seattle tried a CaBi-style system, Pronto, but it failed. Seattle DOT head (and also DDOT alum) Scott Kubly says he hopes private operators can offer the service the city couldn't.

DC Sustainable Transportation, WABA, local Business Improvement Districts, and people from DDOT and the DC Council will be looking into what rules DC should establish. While we have a high rates of bicycling compared to most large cities in the US, top world cities show how much more we could do. If dockless bikeshare (properly permitted) can increase cycling in a way that's safe, doesn't litter the public space, and maintains equity, that'd be terrific!

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.