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San Francisco, Seattle Peddle Advice For Austin's Dockless Bike-Share Future

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
A Mobike rental outside of the Austin Convention Center during SXSW 2017.

Sometimes solving a problem creates a problem.

The city’s transportation department hosted a roundtable this morning to avoid that very maxim as it relates Austin’s rollout of dockless bikes – those smartphone-enabled rental bikes that have cropped up (and all over) cities like Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Dallas.

Hosted by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the discussion among transit officials from San Francisco, Seattle and Austin sought to bring context to the city’s 2,500-bike pilot program, which was approved by the Austin City Council in February.

Seattle has arguably experienced the most viral headaches associated with the rentals. The bikes from companies like LimeBike, Mobike, Ofo and Spin aren’t relegated to docks, like Austin’s current bike-share, B-Cycle. So, users scan a QR code or get texted a PIN to unlock bikes and then drop them when they’re done – so they end up all over the place.

Joel Miller, interim head of Seattle's bike-share program, said that while the bikes have the potential to expand transit access, providers don’t always keep track of them and regulations to prevent poor parking aren't easily enforced. That’s something the city is trying to emphasize as it crafts new dockless bike rules to replace its pilot program.

“Compliance is a large question, especially with this dockless model, where the city is kind of handing off all the operations to a private operator,” Miller said. “There’s a number of ways – and it’s kind of a much longer, larger question than can be answered here – and it’s something we haven’t quite figured out, to be honest.”

Miller said Seattle currently has about 10,000 dockless bikes among its handful of providers. The current framework there, he says, is largely based on a “complaint-response” system. So, say a bike is blocking a sidewalk; the city depends on someone reporting that to the transportation department, which then asks the provider to move it within two hours. Miller advised Austin that proper education of how to park the bikes –rather than depending on complaints – could save the Austin Transportation Department a lot of time.

“That’s probably not the best answer, we’re finding. It’s just a lot to ask people, if you walk to a bike, to complain about it. And, the best people will move that bike, but that doesn’t solve the larger problem of how do people actually park correctly in the first place,” Miller said.

Seattle has found success in using operating permits to ensure citywide access to bikes, he said, mandating a 20 percent coverage requirement in its pilot.

John-Michael Cortez, a transportation adviser for Mayor Steve Adler, said Austin may work to set up a similar system when it eventually rolls out its pilot.

“I think that it could be a combination of both some requirements as a condition of having a permit and some community subsidy, if we find that it’s worth it,” he said, adding that the city would implement a requirement only if it were feasible for providers.

Cortez also said a potential pilot program could charge infrastructure fees to providers, similar to the ones levied on ride-hailing providers before that ordinance was preempted by state law last year.

“As far as what we can do, as far as with fees for those companies, we can only really charge them what it costs us to regulate them," he said. "To the degree that we’re levying some additional fee in to pay for infrastructure or something else, we’re not levying against that operator, we’re levying it against the user.”

That kind of enforcement and fee structure is something the Bay Area is considering as it weighs whether to wade into dockless bike-sharing. (San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland all share a fleet of 2,600 dock-bound bikes operated by Motivate.)

Gillian Gillett, the head of transportation policy for the City and County of San Francisco, cautioned that, even if a city does manage to set up a fee to supplement bike lanes and the like, it’s not a lock that a provider will willingly pay them. 
“The new mobility actors, they’re venture capital-funded startups. They are not in position to make investments in much other than their own company,” Gillett said. “They’re operating on borrowed money to prove a business model. They are not going to come up with the large, capital infrastructure dollars that are required to fix cities."

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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