A new kind of bike share has popped up in many U.S. cities in recent months, and it’s most noticeable for what it’s missing: a designated place to park the bikes.
The new “dockless” bike shares have arrived in places like Seattle, Dallas and Washington, D.C., since the summer. They’re run by private companies like LimeBike, MoBike and Spin. Riders locate and unlock the bikes using their mobile phones and they can leave them, well, almost anywhere. The bikes have kickstands and lock themselves, so most don’t even have to be next to a pole, rack or fence to attach them to.
That means hundreds of new bicycles have hit the streets in these cities in recent weeks. With no set parking spaces or docking stations, many residents worry that the bicycles are further cluttering already crowded sidewalks. But others are excited for a new transportation option, especially because the new services tend to be cheaper and more flexible than the dock-based systems that have proliferated throughout the country over the last seven years.
The dockless bike share is such a new concept that cities aren’t quite sure what to make of it.
Some cities, including New York, fought the upstart companies from setting up business there after they had initially used Uber-style tactics to launch without consulting city officials. But the companies have changed their tune lately, opting to work with local officials rather than circumventing them. That helped them get off the ground in a handful of cities, but it's still unclear whether their new approach will be enough for them to win over New York and other cities that have fought them previously.
Two of the cities where dockless bike-share companies now operate have welcomed the new companies as a solution to an existing transportation gap. Seattle, for example, was left without any bike-share program after the city took over the beleaguered Pronto and shut it down in March. Dallas is one of the few major cities that never had one, and private efforts to raise money to launch one have fallen flat.
The most competitive testing ground right now is Washington, D.C., where four different dockless companies have launched in recent weeks and another competitor is expected to start operations soon.
The city does already have its own robust bike share program; in fact, Capital Bikeshare was the first citywide program in the U.S. when it launched seven years ago. But unlike in some other cities, where private companies may run the bike program with the hopes of turning a profit, D.C.'s bike share program is wholly owned and operated by the city. So the fact that the new dockless companies might cut into Capital Bikeshare's business isn't a major concern.
So how did D.C. become ground zero for dockless?
One reason is that regulators have kept an open mind about the new services.The district wanted to let the new companies in, but it wasn't sure how best to regulate them, says Sam Zimbabwe, the chief project delivery officer for the D.C. transportation department. So it decided to allow these five companies to operate in the city on a trial basis for about six months. That will give officials enough information, Zimbabwe says, to see what regulations are needed.
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