Late last spring, Seattle gave up on its former taxpayer-funded bike share system that users complained was too complicated, cost too much and enticed too few riders.
But that was then. Today, less than half a year later, three bike share companies – Lime Bike, Spin and Ofo – have rolled out in Seattle. The city is the first in the U.S. to support private bike share systems that do not have stations or docks to park bicycles. And unlike Pronto, the station-based system that previously had been in place, they are not powered by taxpayer money.
Bikes can be left on public sidewalks, provided they don’t block driveways or pedestrian access. Bicycles can be located via a smartphone app. A lock on the rear wheel is unlocked when a rider scans a QR code on the bicycle.
“The community reception has been tremendous. About a month ago, the Cascade Bicycle Club even circulated a petition to advance the cap and allow us to add additional bikes,” says Derrick Ho, CEO and co-founder of Spin. “Things are going incredibly well.”
Success prompts expansion
Things are going so well, in fact, that more bikes from each company are being added. And this month, the number of Spin bikes available will double to 2,000. The other companies have similarly been allowed to up their number of bikes on the road as well.
The Seattle Department of Transportation is collecting and analyzing data from this six-month pilot program to better plan for local transportation. By the end of the 2017, the Emerald City is on pace to surpass New York City and boast the country’s largest bike share network.
Kyle Rowe, a project lead for bicycle, pedestrian and other safety improvement projects in SDOT’s Traffic Management division and the bike share program’s strategic adviser, says he believes people are more likely to live a car-free lifestyle if they have options. And if private companies can provide those options faster the government?
“Then we can swallow our pride,” he says. “What we want is for people to have healthy biking and walking options that enable easy access to services and destinations throughout the city.”
Pioneering a movement
Of course, as the first U.S. adopter of the dockless bike share system, Rowe admits the city is in unchartered territory and implementing public policy to manage the system on the fly. Still, he says he receives at least two to three calls a day from other cities looking to implement similar programs.
Dan Stone, Seattle’s general manager of Lime Bikes, says the nearly instant success of the bike share program can be attributed to many factors, but two that he thinks are most critical are cost and accessibility. The price of a single ride isn’t just dirt cheap at $1 – it’s the lowest price of any bike share system in any metropolitan area nationwide.
And then there is convenience. The bikes can be found anywhere in the city limits, ridden and parked anywhere, too.
“Our aim is to really have this be a viable transportation option for the region, connecting with all the modes of transportation available in Puget Sound cities so that we can be a first-mile, last-mile transportation option as well as the sole option supporting them wherever people work and wherever they live,” Stone says.
The city, however, has taken a cautious approach, phasing the bikes in over time, to avoid some of the issues China has seen with its dockless bike share system. China-based Ofo, the recent Seattle entrant, is one of the world’s fastest-growing bike share companies, with 8 million bikes and 150 million users. Riders take an estimated 25 million trips per day.
But riders in China haven’t always been responsible, and piles of unused bikes have stacked up in some cities in strange places, blocking pedestrian and vehicle access. Many others have been vandalized.
“What you see in China, no one wants that, and we’re being extremely careful to avoid that through staged implementation, education and vigilance,” Rowe says. He also notes that despite some obvious drawbacks Seattle aims to avoid, the bike share system has upped the number of riders overall in China, particularly in crowded and congested cities like Beijing.
Seattle’s bike share companies also are taking great pains to provide greater access for disabled and low-income riders as well as provide incentives for users to patronize local businesses when they ride.
Says Spin’s Ho: “We are literally everywhere in the city, offering low-cost transportation that promotes a healthy, affordable and environmentally friendly option for people. I think it’s a game-changer.”