Baltimore shuts down its docked bikeshare, in favor of Lime and Bird

Baltimore's now defunct docked bikeshare system. Image by the author.

Baltimore is shutting down its problem-plagued public bikeshare system, and will instead allow up to 2,000 Lime and Bird bikes and scooters.

Officials say that by Friday, August 17, all Baltimore Bikeshare bicycles will be off the streets, and dock-based bikeshare in the city will be no more, at least for now.

Replacing it: A new pilot program that will allow Lime and Bird up to 1,000 vehicles each, for a total of up to 2,000.

Bird had already been operating a smaller number of scooters in the city. The new program allows them, and Lime, to greatly expand. It also requires the companies to offer discounts to low-income residents, and to ensure their vehicles are equitably distributed to low-income neighborhoods.

Baltimore Bikeshare had big problems

Baltimore's public bikeshare originally opened in October 2016 with 200 bikes at 20 stations, and promises to greatly expand. It never ran smoothly.

The ambitious system was higher-tech than bikeshare in most US cities, with electric-assist motors on 40% of its bikes, and a dockless mechanism that allowed users to lock bikes to normal racks rather than docks, if necessary.

Baltimore's dock-based bikes had a dockless option, allowing users to lock to normal bike racks. Image by the author.

Unfortunately, the high-tech bikes were hard to maintain and easy to steal. Workers couldn't keep bikes on the streets, and the system quickly became unusable. By September 2017 there were only four bikes available to check out citywide.

In the fall of 2017 the system closed for a month while workers modified the bikes with new locks and GPS transponders, hoping to save the system. It didn't work. By summer 2018 the system was once again virtually unusable, with broken equipment and only six bikes available citywide.

On August 15, as Baltimore mayor Pugh announced the city will shut down the system, tracking statistics said there were only 32 bikes available.

Can dockless bikes substitute for traditional bikeshare?

Given the state of Baltimore Bikeshare, and given that private companies are knocking on Baltimore's door ready to expand, it's hard to fault officials for throwing in the towel on the public system. Focusing on dockless is probably a better move right now than trying to salvage a failing product.

But while it's still early in the history of dockless bikeshare, and we still have much to learn about how to best run it, it does seem true that dockless bikeshare has different strengths and weaknesses from traditional dock-based systems.

Dockless is free to the city, can hit the streets faster than public procurement processes would allow, and seems to more equitably serve underprivileged users. But dock-based systems seem to have a higher ceiling to serve a larger number of trips in high-demand locations, and also generally offer higher quality and probably safer bicycles.

Ideally a city would have both. Giving up on docked bikeshare may mean retreating from the benefits of sturdy bikes with high-ridership anchor locations.

One also wonders about theft. If one of the biggest problems with Baltimore's docked bikes was theft, it seems unlikely Lime will fare better.

Maybe it's scooters only

It's notable that Lime & Bird are the two companies that will now give Baltimore a go. Bird only operates scooters. Lime operates both bikes and scooters, but seems to be increasingly pivoting to scooters.

The main image on Lime's website features a scooter, not a bike. 

So maybe this is a retreat from bikesharing completely, and Baltimore is going all-in on scooters.

Scooters, obviously, have yet another set of strengths and weaknesses compared to any kind of bikes. Scooters are easier to park, easier to start and stop, nimbler, and seem to suffer less from theft. But they're also wobblier, can't run on gravel, lack even minimal baskets, and may be slower.

There can be little doubt that a succesful scooter system is better than nothing at all, or a failing bikeshare system like Baltimore's, but it very much remains to be seen if scooters have staying power on their own, or if they're an adequate substitute for bikeshare in the long term.

It's going to be fascinating to see how this unfolds.