The U.S. Dockless Mobility Experiment

April 27, 2018

Dockless bicycles and scooters have arrived. Since late 2017, several private companies have launched systems in dozens of U.S. cities such as Washington, D.C., Seattle, San Diego, and Dallas, prompting discussions nationwide on how to regulate these mobility devices.

Bikeshare and scooter share are the newest technologies backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital investment. In most cities where the services operate, people can choose from a handful of dockless mobility providers. While each company differs slightly in terms of the technology and fees associated with the service, all share the same basic idea of enabling users to pick up and drop off devices nearly anywhere, obfuscating the need for costly and less flexible city-managed dock systems.

To take a ride, users must create an account through the provider’s app or webpage, a process that allows the user to locate the bike or scooter, begin the ride, close out the session, and pay. To unlock the device, users can enter a pin number or scan a QR code on the mobility device itself. To end the trip, users are prompted to park the device out of the pedestrian right-of-way within a zone depicted in the app.

Dockless Service Type: Traditional Bike Electric Bike Electric Scooter
Examples of Providers: Mobile, Spin JUMP Bird, LimeBike
Fees: $1 per 30 minutes $2 per 30 minutes $1 plus 15 cents/minute

Dockless bikes and scooters have received their share of negative press, as complaints have risen in response to users parking them in the middle of sidewalks and in front of doorways, or operating them at high speeds on public sidewalks. Critics have referred to the devices as “sidewalk clutter”, and some cities, such as San Francisco, have sent cease and desist letters to the various companies operating on their streets. Cities are unsure how, or if, to regulate them, and what role the private companies need to play in ensuring a safe, clean, and accessible city.

But the dockless systems are still nascent and hold a lot of promise. They could encourage people to ditch their cars, easing congestion, reducing emissions, and increasing safety for everyone. They represent a low (or no) cost way for cities to invest in bike share systems that usually require significant city resources to deploy. Cities should embrace this opportunity to experiment with providing a variety of mobility options to citizens.

Creating a process that governs dockless deployment

Dockless launch failures, like when Dallas was overwhelmed with 20,000 bikes overnight, highlight the justification for cities to take an active role in regulating the deployment of bike systems. The process need not be cumbersome, but any company deploying a system should be required to obtain a city permit, with certain restrictions on how many vehicles they can deploy and how companies should move devices that obstruct the public right of way. For example, Washington, DC limits dockless companies to 400 bikes or scooters.

Regulations can help encourage equitable access to transportation options across neighborhoods by, for example, requiring the providers to disperse higher percentages of their fleets in areas with lower frequencies of traditional docked bikeshare systems and fewer transportation options in general.

The private sector can develop ways to meet these basic regulations. Like traditional bikes, dockless devices should be required to be parked in such a way that they do not interfere with the public right of way. To address this, companies are exploring technological solutions – such as requiring riders to submit a photo of their properly-parked bike in order to end a trip – to ensure responsible use. Scooter share systems often take all their devices off the streets at night, in part to charge them but also to keep down clutter.

Updating old or unnecessary regulations on bikes and electric scooters

In some cities, dockless electric bikes and scooters fall into a legal gray area that can inhibit the spread of these services. Dockless system customers must comply with local and state safety regulations, though challenges may arise in the roughly half of U.S. states that do not currently define electric bicycles as belonging to a specific class. Until recently, any electric bike or scooter was illegal in New York, because they were classified as motorized scooters under the city’s code. California state laws require motorized scooter users to be 16 or older, have drivers’ licenses, wear helmets, and not ride on sidewalks. States likes Alabama and Alaska require a special motorcycle license to operate an electric bike or scooter.

Given that they are low speed and lightweight, dockless scooters and bikes pose a very low safety risk to the public. Cities can relax or eliminate laws for these types of devices that were intended for faster and heavier vehicles. Instead of using resources to cite those not wearing helmets, cities should focus on making streets safer by encouraging the spread of these non-vehicular services and limiting motor vehicle speeds to improve safety for all people on foot, scooter, or bicycle.

Cities nationwide, such as New York and Washington, D.C., have already begun to discuss easing restrictions on electric bicycles, such as bans against using them on sidewalks and trails. These easements can serve as a model for cities to revisit the regulations imposed upon dockless mobility devices.

Inviting and encouraging dockless experimentation

The deployment of dockless mobility is a great way for cities to experiment with providing new transportation options to citizens for two reasons. First, dockless services do not directly utilize public dollars. Unlike many docked bike share systems, the private companies are fully funding the capital and operating expenses associated with their systems. Cities only need to provide the administrative and oversight functions, but these are relatively small compared to the broader transportation portfolio.

Second, dockless deployment is a safe experiment when considering that cities already allow large vehicles to navigate city streets at high speeds. In 2016, there were 37,461 deaths on U.S. roads attributable to vehicle drivers. And though there are parallel traffic laws imposed on vehicles—speed limits, for instance—these laws are regularly disobeyed with little enforcement or accountability.

Beyond cities, private companies need to work proactively with local governments to improve the communities in which they operate. After stirring up controversy in San Fransciso, the dockless scooter provider Bird released a three-part plan to address cities’ concerns, promising to retrieve all of their devices from city streets every night, to not increase the number of devices in their fleet unless they are being used an average of three times a day, and to provide $1 per scooter per day to city governments for infrastructure improvements. Such considerations play an important role in operating a transportation network that serves all citizens.

There will be kinks along the way as users learn where and how to appropriately use the mobility devices. And it is impossible to know whether the dockless systems are a 2018 fad or will eventually be part of the broader transportation network. But by creating smart regulations for dockless services, cities can encourage new mobility options and ultimately fulfill their long-term goals of creating safe, equitable, sustainable mobility.

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