The problem with the bike shares echoes some of the larger issues that tech companies have begun to face head on — that a small number of bad actors can cause serious headaches for services created with the best of intentions.
Dallas isn’t the only city weighing the costs and benefits of dockless bike startups. Washington has worked through its own experiment with dockless bikes. One Hong Kong-based startup had to leave France after the “mass destruction” of its bikes.
It all started last summer. Suddenly, shiny new bicycles in the colors of exotic birds were scattered in high-traffic areas throughout Dallas.
At first they were only near parks and grocery stores, but soon they were lined up in dining districts and outside museums. Then they made it onto hiking trails and into residential neighborhoods. The city toyed with the idea of a stationed bike-share model, but couldn’t muster the initial investment capital. Dockless bike-sharing was the perfect, financially forgiving compromise.
The premise is simple: You spot a bike, download an app and enter your credit card number. The bike is remotely unlocked, and the user rides away. Most companies charge about $1 an hour; many promise the first ride free.
Within a few months of the rollout in Dallas, bike-share companies were basking in the city’s hands-off approach, ramping up their fleets and duking it out for market share. By January, there were five major competitors: Limebike, VBike, Spin, Ofo and MoBike.
Nobody knows for sure how many of these bike-share bicycles are loitering in the streets right now. A columnist at The Dallas Morning News has estimated 20,000 or so, and that’s the number people in the industry use. But listening to people complain about them, the estimates often range anywhere from “a crapton” to “a bazillion.”
Whatever the exact number, Dallas now has more dockless bikes than any other North American city in America, and in January, residents filed more than 260 complaints about them. That same month, Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax sent out a memo hoping to put the brakes on the situation. The message instructed bike-share companies to start moving bikes that had been dropped in inconvenient places, or, ominously, the city “may be left with no choice” but to remove them.
By then, pictures of massive bike-share graveyards in China had been widely disseminated. Citizens had no trouble transplanting that vision of a post-apocalyptic-looking nightmare onto Dallas.
Philip Kingston loves the bike-share. He’s a progressive-minded attorney serving his third term on the Dallas City Council, and he has a history of advocating for both bikes and new technology. When cab companies tried to get Uber banned from Dallas in 2013, Kingston was one of the ride-share company’s biggest advocates.
He said he can understand the issues people have with the bikes, but that he believes it to be a generational issue.
“There’s a huge sentiment among people, especially older people, of ‘everything in its place,’” Kingston says. “The idea that someone would leave a bike somewhere when he or she is finished with it violates a sense of order.”
Kingston said support for the dockless bikes breaks down mostly by age. Younger people generally like them, older people don’t, and the line is “about 49 years old,” he said. Kingston also isn’t too concerned with the “eyesore” complaint. He points to another brightly colored, ubiquitous object found throughout the city: the trash bin.
“Every week, they wind up in the road ways, they get vandalized, they get hit by cars,” he says. “I get zero complaints about this.”
The need for speed
It’s easy to see why Dallas agreed to take bike-share companies for a spin in the first place.
Hassle-free rentable bikes lead to fewer cars on the road, which leads to shorter commutes for drivers, which leads to less pollution — especially good, since Dallas is the 13th-most polluted city in the U.S.
But when people see the well-intentioned bikes pushed into creeks and blocking sidewalks, it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps technology hasn’t contributed to this aspect of human behavior: the irresistible urge some people have to kick over a standing bike, or the desire to throw five into a creek.
A few Instagram accounts, like @dallasbikemess and @bikesharenightmare, are dedicated solely to sharing photos and videos of bike-share bicycles that have been knocked over or left in strange places: the side of a highway, behind a dumpster, in a tree. Not long ago someone sawed one in half and turned it into street art in the Deep Ellum neighborhood. And everyone has heard stories about kids who hacked the bikes — literally hacking off the black boxes locking the back wheel — to ride them free.
Maybe people react childishly — like kids experimenting with new toys — to new-fangled tech solutions. Or maybe Dallas is disproportionately populated by jerks.
Anthony Fleo, Dallas general manager of LimeBike, dismisses that idea completely. These are minor growing pains, he contends, easily fixed with a little user education. He says that vandalism has affected less than 3 percent of the 10,000 LimeBike fleet.
Kris Alborz, general counsel for VBikes, calls the bike mess an “eyesore.” He says that his company has downsized where necessary, and that the competition —is the problem.
“Our competitors are here to flood the market,” he says. “We feel like we’re the only ones playing by the rules. I guess that’s the difference between your mom-and-pop shops and big corporations.”
LimeBike said that ridership has doubled since last month, and Ofo reported 100 percent growth in March. Those are good indications that even if people hate the bikes, someone’s riding them. And numbers like that yield plenty of ride-related data, which the companies say they’ll share with the city of Dallas. By figuring out where people are riding and where bikes should be concentrated most, city officials can use the data to build bike infrastructure, identify transportation deserts, and work on easing traffic congestion.
The bike-share companies are also working on new solutions to improve their services and keep bikes from becoming a nuisance. There’s been progress on sensor technology that will allow companies to detect when a bike is on its side (presumably so they can dispatch someone to go set it up) and in-app parking zones. There’s been talk of leveraging fees for improper bike placement. To counter vandalism, Everett Weiler, Dallas general manager for Beijing-based bike-share Ofo, says that his company is striving to make its bikes sturdier. LimeBike has released cute instructional videos designed to grab users’ attention. And Dallas plans to pass regulations this year, but it’s not clear yet exactly what those will be.
In the meantime, the companies in Dallas are already gearing up for the next big thing in transportation-share technology: dockless scooters, which are already piling up on the streets of San Francisco.