In the age of Uber, cities have increasingly taken on the role of regulator to private transportation companies. Now, with the rise of the dockless bike-share start-up, they’ll need to switch gears, so to speak, from four wheels to two.
The city of Seattle is among the first to try out the new oversight role. According to Curbed, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) announced a set of regulations on Friday that will “govern how private companies operate their [bike-shares].” The new rules delve into safety requirements, parking rules and minimum service levels and seek to protect the city financially. If a vendor wants to begin operating a bike-share, they’ll need to apply for a permit. You can see the full set of regulations here.
“We’re dealing with equity issues, we’re making sure that the bikes are well maintained, we’re making sure that they’re kind of balanced around the system and meeting our public policy goals,” SDOT director Scott Kubly told Curbed.
As Josh Cohen wrote for Next City in May, two private bike-share startups from the San Francisco Bay Area, Spin and LimeBike, and one from Beijing, BlueGoGo, are all planning on bringing their bikes to Seattle. All the companies use “dockless” bikes, which allow users to find and check out bikes with a smartphone and leave them wherever they want once they finish a trip. Kubly believes dockless bikes could be particularly well-suited to Seattle because of the city’s hilly topography, according to Curbed.
In January, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced that Pronto, the city’s troubled public bike-share program, would shut down. Pronto launched in October of 2014 under nonprofit ownership with sponsorship from Alaska Airlines. When it launched, it was composed of 500 bikes with 50 stations but in 2016, the city bought the system for $1.4 million after membership and ridership dropped off.
But while there appears to be little love lost between the city and Pronto, private bike-share is no panacea either. As Next City’s Kelsey E. Thomas wrote in April, a group of city transportation officials has sounded the alarm over so-called “rogue” systems.
When spared the expensive docking stations, the argument goes, cities can instead devote their money to bike infrastructure, in the end getting more riders access to cycling at a cheaper cost.
But the National Association of City Transportation Officials says not so fast, condemning the bike-share systems’ “flimsy equipment and limited or no public notification,” which they say pose significant risks to the public, as well as the bike-shares’ disconnect from citywide transportation systems. NACTO also points to China, where these types of systems have been in use for years, and where “junk heaps of broken bikes” abound.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.