Bikes from Mobike, one of two companies likely to start in DC. Image by Cwek licensed under Creative Commons.

In a few weeks, you'll likely have more choices for bicycling around DC, as "dockless" bike sharing companies launch pilot programs. DC wants suggestions on how to ensure these services are good for residents and don't cause problems, and a group of advocates, transportation planners, and businesses have put out some recommendations. 

Instead of having to pick up and return the bike to a fixed docking station, as with Capital Bikeshare, you find a bike parked somewhere using an app, unlock it with the app, and then park it anywhere. Seattle, which tried and failed to launch a CaBi-style system called Pronto, now has three competing private bikeshare systems and fast-growing ridership.

In DC, interested companies include Mobike, a Chinese company which operates in 160 Chinese cities, Manchester in the UK, Florence and Milan in Italy, and Sapporo in Japan. It's been eyeing US expansion for some time and especially DC. I had a chance to sit down with Mobike representatives to discuss their plans. Martin Di Caro reported that Seattle-based Spin would like to launch here, and LimeBike, which is based in San Mateo, CA and operates in 7 US cities, has also met with some officials. There are probably others, too.

It doesn't even need a bike rack

One thing folks unfamiliar with dockless bikeshare may not realize is that it doesn't just mean you can lock the bike to an existing bike rack on the street. You can leave it anywhere. These bikes can lock their own wheels, so someone could place the bike on any flat surface, basically, and lock it.

How do they get people to lock them in the right place? According to Jillian Irvin of Mobike, their app asks riders who pick up a bike to rate the previous rider's parking job. At least in its Chinese deployments, poorly-parked bikes (or bikes which haven't moved in a while, which might mean they're somewhere less visible or with less demand) appear on the app with a "red bag" and moving them gives riders a random cash reward. (That kind of "spin the wheel" game approach is very popular in China.)

In Shanghai, Mobike worked with the city to designate certain areas, marked with a painted white rectangle on the ground, as a place to put bikes, creating an incentive for people to use those, explained Rachel Song, head of Mobike's US expansion.

Spin bikes in Seattle. The black clamp-like thing is what locks the bike without a rack. Image by Neil Hodges licensed under Creative Commons.

What's good (and possibly not so good) about dockless bikeshare

Dockless bikeshare systems can have major advantages. For one, it's much cheaper to build; Capital Bikeshare docking stations cost about $50,000 to build and install, while dockless bikeshare has no dock cost at all. This means that in areas with lower density and/or lower bicycle ridership, where there are fewer CaBi stations, someone might not have to walk as far.  Also, reaching your destination and finding a completely full dock (as some call it, being "dockblocked") is a significant hassle. With dockless bikeshare, that's eliminated.

On the other hand, these advantages can also be disadvantages. While you won't have to walk as far after dropping off your bike, you might have to travel farther to find one. CaBi spends a lot of effort (and money) rebalancing bikes, and DC, Arlington, and other jurisdictions which operate CaBi have invested money in putting docks in lower-income areas where the financial return might be lower, but which are important for equity. Without some rules, dockless bikeshare services might just not have any bikes in those places.

And while you don't need a dock to park the bike, that also means less respectful users can simply plop the bike somewhere inconvenient: right in front of a Metro station, say, or on a narrow sidewalk, or in front of a cafe which puts out tables in the evening. DC's public space, especially downtown and in other busy business districts, is already scarce and hotly contested.

DC regulates all of these needs through a public space permitting process. How will it handle dockless bikeshare? Seattle, for instance, requires bikes parked in public space to go in the strips of land between the sidewalk and the curb (where the tree boxes are). Maybe a lot of that can be figured out as the pilot goes on, but if these bikes launch and create significant problems for non-cyclists, it could trigger some backlash not just to dockless bikeshare, but bicycling in general.

DCST offers some recommendations

DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST), a coalition of business, advocacy, and government groups who promote shared priorities for DC transportation which I lead, convened a task force a month ago to discuss this new technology. It included people from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, several Business Improvement Districts, DC council staff, and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT).

The group devised a set of recommendations for how the city should handle dockless bikeshare (with DDOT being just a neutral observer and not weighing in on rules, yet). Overall, the sentiment of the group was:

The group feels that dockless bikeshare represents a significant opportunity to expand bike sharing and bike ridership in the District, and we would like to encourage dockless bikeshare operators to begin operations here.

The group feels that dockless bikeshare also brings significant risks, such as to the use of public space, safety, and equity. Any deployment in DC must be in coordination with government through an MOU or subject to a permit process that could be defined in regulation or legislation.

Competing dockless bikes in Beijing. Image by Hippietrail licensed under Creative Commons.

The main issues identified in the DCST white paper are:

Safety. In some systems, especially in other countries, there have been operators who deploy large numbers of cheap bikes which break easily. Capital Bikeshare bikes are expensive in part because they're really sturdy. I'm not saying Spin or Mobike are going to put out unsafe bikes, but there needs to be some monitoring to ensure a basic level of safety.

Data sharing. Anyone can see where the Capital Bikeshare bikes are parked, and there are public, computer-readable files which app developers unaffiliated with CaBi can use to build their own apps or visualize data. It's important to get similar public data about the locations of dockless bikes. And since they have GPS, there should also be public data on how many bikes use which roads, which can aid planning new bike facilities.

If we're on a trend toward having private companies provide more of our transportation services, like Uber and dockless bikeshare and future autononmous vehicles replacing buses, then it's important for cities to get the data about movement patterns which they'd otherwise have. David Zipper explains in Citylab why sharing data is so important, and describes some ways to ensure privacy and confidentiality while giving cities what they need.

Parking locations. Outside of congested areas, existing bike racks and the general "tree box area" between the sidewalk and the curb would make good locations to park dockless bikes. In non-crowded places, there is plenty of room there. 

In the busy central DC business districts, there may need to be dedicated areas to park the bikes, because there often aren't enough bike racks or many tree box areas at all. The best approach (but perhaps more controversial) would be to designate parking spaces, like one per block, as dockless bike parking, as Mobike did in Shanghai. Also, the operators could work with DDOT and the BIDs to identify other places, get permits, and then make them available for any dockless bikeshare bike.

Reporting problems. Rating the parking through the app if you take a bike is great, but other people who aren't bikeshare users need a way to report a parking problem. We suggest requiring the operators to display a phone number and URL on all bikes where people could call or enter an issue (or it could be integrated with something like 311). The operator should share that data with DDOT, and be required to move the bike once reported within some period of time.

Equity. Local governments have spent money putting stations in less dense and/or lower-income areas, to ensure that the benefits of bikeshare accrue to all. Maybe the dockless operators will be even better here; car2go, for instance, offers residents east of the Anacostia a transportation service that, unlike cabs, doesn't discriminate. If so, terrific!

Alternatively, dockless bikeshare bikes could mainly just circulate in dense central neighborhoods (which are also more profitable for CaBi), leaving other areas dependent on the government-subsidized service. This could be okay, though not ideal, as long as the dockless bikeshare operators contribute funds to offset the extra costs.

Therefore, the DCST working group recommends an in-lieu fee system. DC would set a minimum standard for how many bikes and/or rides are found in each neighborhood. (It could also set a maximum, to ensure bikes are rebalanced and don't all stay downtown all day). Operators could either meet that standard, or they could pay a fee which goes to funding CaBi service in those areas. Ideally, the private operators would devise creative, maybe more effective ways to raise usage in low-income areas (after all, often the obstacles are not lack of interest).

If private enterprise can solve problems that public services have struggled with, great! If not, they can pay for the public service to do it. But they shouldn't just skim the best customers and shirk the side effects, especially on equity.

Federal land. DC can give operators a permit for these bikes to be parked on District sidewalks and the like, but not on federal property like the Mall. The National Park Service will have to be involved in some way. NPS moved quickly—for NPS—to put some Capital Bikeshare stations on the Mall; hopefully the agency will similarly find a way to make dockless bikeshare work but also ensure that monuments don't get totally overrun with these bikes.

You can read the full set of DCST recommendations here. DDOT is asking for comments on these issues by September 15. How do you think DC should regulate, or not regulate, dockless bikeshare?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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.