What’s Next for Seattle’s New Era Floating Bike Shares

by Ari Cetron

(This article was originally published on the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog and has been reprinted with permission)

It’s a bit of a chaotic test. They get dropped almost everywhere — some literally dropped, for real — and by the end of January, the first electric-assist versions will be on the streets of Seattle. With the city allowing the multi-colored “floating” companies to operate during a Wild West trial period, It’s not a question of whether Seattle will continue to have a bike share program, it’s just a question of what the final rules will be.

“I cannot see a world where Seattle does not have a bike share system,” said Mafara Hobson of the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Jasmine Marwaha from City Council member Mike O’Brien’s office agreed. O’Brien chairs the council’s transportation committee, and be turning the cranks on what the final program looks like. Marwaha said that while there have been some concerns about parking the bikes, there has not been anything severe enough to merit ending the program.

Seattle had first tried owning its own bike share system using docking stations similar to those found in some other cities. But the system ended up failing to attract enough riders to make it viable. In July, the city embarked on a new system of dockless bikes. Three different companies — LimeBike, Spin, and Ofo — began scattering brightly colored bikes around town to be rented by the minute.

Seattle considered the dockless bikes to be a pilot program, and it was permitted for one year. The bike companies, in conjunction with the University of Washington and SDOT, have been collecting data about how the bikes are used. That data collection phase ended in December, but final numbers could not yet be made available for CHS to publish.

From earlier in the period, we know that each of the three companies is licensed to place up to 4,000 bikes in the city, and there were 9,388 around town as of the end of October. The city collects a licensing fee of $15 per bike. The average trip lasted 30.3 minutes and was for about three miles. In total, there were 347,003 trips averaging 2,711 trips per day. A third of trips took place on weekends. In aggregate, the bikes were ridden for more than 1.05 million miles during that stretch of summer and fall.

More specific data, such as which neighborhoods saw the most trips, number of unique riders, and number of trips per bike per day are not yet available. The final data will also include things like safety and collision data, and information about the different vendors’ compliance with permitting.

There were some other trends in ridership. Hobson noted that the weather had an expected impact. “We saw greater ridership when it was pretty out,” she said.

As with the Pronto system, people would more often use bikes to go downhill than to go uphill, though she said there was some more uphill usage in this system. Since these bikes are dockless, people can, and sometimes do, load a shared bikes onto a bus, so they can be sure they’ll have access at the other end.

“We’re finding that people are really being multi-modal,” Hobson said.

The biggest issues the city has seen so far involve the general perception and parking, Hobson said.

Some people see the bikes, and think of them as a cool, new option and an indicator of a vibrant city. Others look at the bikes and see a candy-colored eyesore, cluttering up the sidewalk.

Parking is a different issue. Once people finish their ride, they’re supposed to leave the bike in a public space, but one that doesn’t block access or create safety hazards. In general, Hobson noted the best place to park a bike is where other things, such as light poles or street signs already are.

Sometimes, however, people leave the bikes in unwanted, or unsafe, places. Because of the locking mechanism, a passer-by can’t simply roll the bike out of the way, it must be lifted and moved. While most adults could probably pull that off, someone in a wheelchair might have an issue if a bike is blocking a sidewalk or ramp.

Hobson urges people who see a poorly parked bike to contact the company, which should have contact information on each bike. The company is then responsible for moving the errant bike. If the bike is placed someplace hazardous, then people can call SDOT at 684-ROAD, try to note the color of the bike, and be able to describe where you saw it. While the companies seem to be generally on top of moving badly parked bikes, the problem persists and solving it is challenging. If you can, consider lending a hand and picking up a downed bike if you have a minute.

Also, don’t expect any penalties for poorly parked bikes. You can’t fine the last person who used the bike because it may not be their fault. If someone illegally parks a car share, like a Car2go or Reachnow, the driver who parked it is held responsible. That’s not as easy to do in the case of a bike which can be moved.

“Nine times out of 10, no one is going to pick up a car and put it in a weird place because they are trying to be funny,” Hobson said.

Right now, the city is trying to work with the bike companies to determine a reasonable amount of time for them to respond to complaints, and what might happen if the bike is not moved within that time frame.

“What does compliance look like?” Hobson said.

SDOT is also considering designating some spots in high-traffic areas for parking the bikes. Hobson notes people would not be obliged to use the spots –- it would defeat the purpose of a dockless system –- but they would have the option of a place where a rider can be certain they are permitted to park the bike.

Riders not wearing bike helmets are another common complaint, and another one difficult to control. When people sign up for a bike share, they must say they will use a helmet, even if some people don’t. Enforcement of helmetless riders is up to the police, not SDOT.

Hobson wonders if part of the problem might be that bikes aren’t as broadly accepted as a form of transportation, and so people are looking more carefully and noticing issues where they might not have otherwise. In another comparison to car sharing, Hobson says there are few complaints about people not following safety protocols in the cars.

“You don’t get rid of Car2go if people aren’t putting on their seat belts,” she said.

Another new opportunity — and potential compliance issue — is on the horizon as LimeBike is on pace to be the first to introduce electric assist bikes to its Seattle fleet:

Equipped with a rechargeable lithium battery and a 1.21 gigawatt…err…250-watt motor, our Lime-E electric-assist bikes are designed to carry you effortlessly around town or across campus, all while maintaining the accessibility and affordability you’ve come to expect from the US leader in smart mobility solutions.

Capable of speeds up to 15 MPH, the e-bikes could be a commute game changer at $1.00 to unlock, and  $1 per 10 minutes to ride.

Spin, meanwhile, is also about ready to roll out its first electric bikes but its launch will start in smaller cities where it is the exclusive dockless provider.

Meanwhile, questions about working conditions at Ofo raise another possible area for compliance legislation.

Hobson expects SDOT to finish analyzing the data and developing changes to the existing licensing program. From there, the program, with any proposed changes, will go before the City Council, likely in the spring before heading to the mayor for final approval.

Featured image courtesy of Seattle Department of Transportation