After dockless bike-share companies blanketed cities in China with millions of bicycles, firms like ofo and LimeBike set their sights on American markets, backed by heaps of venture capital. They’ve put thousands of bikes on the streets of Seattle, Dallas, and Washington, and they aren’t about to stop there. If they haven’t tried to set up shop in your city yet, odds are they will soon.
In D.C., the city government has taken a measured approach, phasing in fleets from the dockless companies to complement the station-based, publicly-run Capital Bikeshare. The new bikes have largely been well-received, and anecdotal evidence suggests they’re getting more use in the city’s black neighborhoods than CaBi, whose ridership skews white and affluent.
In Dallas, where companies quickly dropped 20,000 shared bikes on the streets, the dockless bike-share experiment isn’t going so smoothly. Complaints about bikes discarded on sidewalks and in all sorts of bizarre places have led city officials to threaten to impound them from the companies.
It’s easy to dismiss this crankiness as a fussy double standard that people never apply to the illegally parked cars littering city sidewalks, crosswalks, and bus stops. But there are bigger questions about the venture-funded dockless bike-share model that go deeper than the propriety of where the bikes are parked.
Long-time observers of American bike-share systems have serious doubts about the safety, utility, and long-term viability of the new services. One of those bike-share industry veterans is Alison Cohen, CEO of Bicycle Transit Systems.
As the executive of a bike-share operator that predates the venture-funded era, with contracts in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Nevada, Cohen isn’t impartial. But talk to public officials at city transportation agencies — people with no financial stake in who wins or loses in the bike-share market — and you’ll hear similar concerns.
Cohen says there’s nothing that special about the “docklessness” of the new bike-share services. “The technology is not revolutionary,” she said. “There have been lock-to-yourself bikes forever.”