Dockless Confidential: Are All of These Shared Bikes and Scooters a Good Thing?

By: Bridget Clerkin June 14, 2018
Dockless transportation—including vehicles like these Bird scooters—are becoming increasingly common in U.S. cities.
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It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No wait, it’s actually a Bird!

If you’ve been to San Diego recently, you’ve definitely seen them: the buzzy electric scooters, known as Birds, that have taken the seaside town by storm.

The battery-powered platform is the latest entrant to the dockless transportation phenomenon emerging along the California coastline and beginning to migrate across the country. Activated by mobile app, the electric scooters can be “started” anywhere they happen to be found—and are just as easily left behind when the user is through with their ride.

Similar business models have sprouted up everywhere around the San Diego area. At least five dockless bike and scooter companies are currently vying for rides in the perma-sunny locale. Users pay a nominal starting fee to “unlock” the vehicle, then are charged by the minute or mile. And when the ride ends—wherever it happens to end—the bike or scooter is meant to be left by its user in a safe and convenient location, waiting for its next rider to come along.

Their instant and infinite accessibility has made the bikes, and especially the Birds, immensely popular in an increasingly on-demand culture.

But that same lack of restraint has left the vehicles vulnerable to some of the less-attractive whims of society—and not everyone thinks they should be able to fly so free.

Nesting

The concept of bike sharing has been around for years, first initiated in Amsterdam in 1965. While the idea spread through Europe in the ensuing decades, it didn’t jump the pond until 2008. That’s when Washington, D.C. initiated the first stateside pilot program called SmartBike DC, which included 120 cycles spread out over 10 stations.

But the idea really took off in America in 2010, when a number of other cities, inspired by the D.C. program’s success, launched their own bike sharing systems. Since then, the country has taken more than 88 million collective rides on the communal cycles, including more than 28 million rides in 2016 alone.

And the concept has only grown in popularity, with the 2016 total a full 10% higher than the number of rides recorded in 2011.

All told, the U.S. is home to 55 bike sharing companies, with a cumulative fleet totaling more than 42,000 cycles.

The U.S. is home to 55 bike sharing companies, with a cumulative fleet of more than 42,000 cycles.

Still, a few hiccups in the business model have threatened to turn the concept into a novelty. Traditional bike sharing schemes require some background knowledge—or at least a serendipitous turn—to locate an available dock.

And even in Seattle, a city renowned for its embrace of pedal pushing, issues arose for a short-lived bike sharing initiative called Pronto. That service was forced to shutter operations within three years due to flagging ridership, blamed on everything from the region’s weather to its strict helmet laws.

But taking the popular idea and making it dockless, many argue, only increases its appeal, with a more streamlined, sleeker, and always-available business model that matches the pace of the times. And the numbers may back them up.

Spreading Wings

Perhaps unsurprisingly, communal dockless cycles were first set free in China, a vanguard of both emerging technology and rapid urbanization.

Introduced in December 2016 by dockless cycle purveyor Mobike, the idea quickly spread throughout the Asian nation. China is now home to 30 bicycle sharing companies and more than 10 million bikes, responsible for racking up more than 2 billion rides last year alone. (Just in Shanghai, there are purportedly 1.5 million of the vehicles.)

And, according to Mobike, the cycles have been put to good use.

The company claims that its fleet is responsible for doubling the amount of bike-riding commuters in some cities, bringing the cumulative total to over 11%. (Perhaps another sign of the concept’s rising popularity in China is the heavy investment in dockless companies made by Chinese ridesharing firm Didi, which has reportedly seen a drop in its short-distance profits following the bikes’ widespread proliferation.)

Across the Pacific, the concept has allowed Seattle to make a swift recovery from the Pronto program flop, with the city now housing more than 9,000 dockless bikes—the largest fleet of shared cycles in the country outside of Dallas and New York City—responsible for providing tens of thousands of daily trips.

Indeed, the freewheeling transportation can increasingly be seen everywhere along the West Coast—including hotspots San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But that they can be found anywhere is half the fun.

Flying the Coop

Bird rider
A Bird scooter user in San Diego

On a busy holiday weekend in San Diego, thousands of out-of-towners flood the beachside city to soak up its sun and shores—and its scooters are becoming increasingly popular.

“We only just saw them after getting here. We had no idea what they were, but people keep riding them around and they look so amazing,” said Arizona resident Casey McMannus, vacationing in San Diego with boyfriend Justin Hernandez. “We definitely want to try them before we leave.”

The vehicles may seem ubiquitous, but to secure a ride, users must first track them down. Apps for each company include radar screens showing the scatterplot of available Birds or bikes in the area. First-timers then must upload a photo of their driver’s license (for Bird’s motorized transportation) and promise to obey all local traffic and helmet laws (for all of the rides) before they can unlock the cycle or scooter.

All in all, it’s a speedy and simple process, and those who had already secured a ride made for quick converts.

“Oh my God, I just did it for the first time and it was so much fun,” beamed visitor Emily Davis, also in San Diego for the weekend. “They need these in Utah!”

And even locals who had first tested the concept six months ago, when San Diego was initially seeded with the dockless bikes, were still interested—especially in the motorized Birds.

“We used to use the bikes at first, and then the scooters started coming out, and we said, ‘Hey, the bikes were fun. Let’s try the scooters,’” said San Diego native Ceanna Vasquez, out cruising the beachy streets on a beautiful sunny day with husband Steven.

“I’ve just never seen them before, so I thought, ‘Sweet, that looks fun. Let’s test it out,’” Steven said of the more-recent emergence of the Birds. “We’ll go find one for a fun weekend thing to do. There’s enough around so it’s just easy.”

While it’s difficult to track down exactly how many of the vehicles have made their way to the Finest City, they have unquestionably made it all around the area.

Proponents argue this is a good thing—not least of which because it makes transportation more accessible. (Having to drive to a bike or scooter that can be left anywhere seems to miss the point.)

Monetarily it also makes sense. More traditional bike share models in which each vehicle must be returned to a home base can run up a cost of nearly $5,000 per bike. The technology used to make the vehicles dockless is much cheaper and allows operators to turn a profit at much lower rates—sometimes as little as one ride per vehicle per day.

And the financial freedom is being paid forward, with the rides making their way into less-affluent neighborhoods that would likely be overlooked as a home to traditional docking stations.

The proliferation of cheap rides could transform the way thousands of people get around—but opening up that transportation to the masses means taking on society’s good, bad, and ugly, and the dockless rides have already seen all of the above.

Molting

One of the biggest gripes San Diegans have with the vehicles designed to be left anywhere is that they’re being left everywhere—and sometimes dangerously so.

The dockless rides can pop up in the strangest of places and quickly pile up, creating sidewalk traffic jams that rival even Southern California’s highways.

“I was out on a run and almost ran into one,” said local Sandy Olson. “It’s not just annoying—it’s dangerous. If I wasn’t paying attention I could’ve crashed right into it and who knows what would’ve happened.”

But aside from polluting the city’s pathways, the rides have been increasingly tainting its precious natural spaces, including sensitive biological areas and even the ocean itself. And, perpetually exposed to vandalism, sometimes one bike or scooter can become litter in a number of different places.

DocklessBikeSanDiegoWrecked
A LimeBike was recently pulled from the surf in San Diego's Ocean Beach neighborhood. Photo by Bridget Clerkin.

“They’re in the way a lot—and they’re everywhere,” said city resident Mike Franta. “I’ve found them in the tide pools. I’ve found them tipped over in the water. I’ve seen them torn apart. I’ve seen them crashed and taken apart, wrapped around poles. Or there will be huge stacks of them outside of our house.”

At a recent meeting with city officials, representatives from the Bird scooter company said they hire a maintenance crew to retrieve the vehicles then charge, clean, and redistribute the rides nightly. (Given San Diego’s recent Hepatitis A outbreak, the cleaning aspect is especially important for the communal transportation.)

To help combat the vandalism issue, the representatives said, they reach out to local business owners to see if they’d be willing to let the scooters stay on or near their property overnight. The app also allows users to “score” a previous rider’s parking job to encourage safer placement.

LimeBike, which offers an array of vehicles across the San Diego area, including pedal bikes, e-bikes, and scooters, will also periodically send a crew out to clean, re-charge, and redistribute, representatives said.

But representatives with Ofo, another dockless bike company, told city officials that if one of their bikes isn’t broken, it’s essentially on the street 24/7—and subject to anything, or anyone, it may encounter.

Yet even after the meeting, the lack of local responsiveness from such companies has proved a sore spot for many, and the unwelcome aspects of the communal cycles have residents and local governments alike pushing back on the dockless transportation, insisting on at least a few boundaries.

But not all movements to confine the freewheeling rides have been successful.

Caged

The dockless phenomenon was legally welcomed to San Diego this January, after it was decided that the transportation didn’t conflict with the city’s preexisting contract with traditional docked bike share company DecoBike.

Yet nearly as soon as the cycles and scooters swept into town, they were hit with some serious backlash. Petitions to limit or outright ban the transportation were quickly produced in several neighborhoods around the metropolitan area, including the La Jolla and Little Italy neighborhoods.

Wielding slightly more political autonomy, citizens of the well-off island city Coronado, located just across San Diego Bay, were able to officially put an end to the programs, declaring the vehicles a “public nuisance” and impounding every dockless bike or scooter on the island.

And across the area, business owners have petitioned the government for a temporary reprieve from the rides until new rules can be written.

Still, the San Diego City Council—which holds the final say for a majority of the greater metropolitan area—failed to endorse a measure last month that would have banned motorized scooters from the area’s boardwalks. (Labeled an “emergency ordinance,” the issue was specifically aimed at the proliferation of dockless e-scooters. Dissenting council members said they wanted time to look over more numbers before making the final call.)

Similar inconsistencies in hometown rule and public opinion have sprouted up all across the nation, leaving dockless companies all but banned in some areas, like New York City, and growing exponentially in others, like Dallas, where sparse regulations and a young population have led to more than 20,000 bikes and scooters appearing in the past few months alone. (More bike sharing policies in the Texas city, however, are reportedly in the works.)

But with the new-age rides only now starting to push eastward in earnest, much remains to be seen on how the country will ultimately metabolize the concept. Taking flight may have been easy, but now the Birds—and the others—need a soft place to land.

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