Dockless bike sharing pilot draws mixed reviews from local ANCs

A bicycle from the Mobike firm is parked on Arizona Avenue NW in the Palisades. (Brady Holt/The Current/November 2017)

As dockless bicycle sharing multiplies on local streets, some residents are raising safety concerns as officials say the city’s seven-month pilot program is being closely monitored.

D.C. began its dockless bike trial period Sept. 20, permitting private companies to release and operate up to 400 rental bikes each across the city through April. Bikes can be tracked, locked and unlocked with a mobile app — without relying on specific locations to collect and return them like Capital Bikeshare, where riders sometimes end up with no free slot to end a bike rental.

While users are asked to park their bicycles in appropriate places upon ending their rentals, like on a sidewalk near the curb, critics say they’ve been finding the bikes left blocking sidewalks and on parkland such as the C&O Canal towpath.

Four of the five companies participating in the trial — Mobike, LimeBike, Spin and ofo —use traditional bicycles, while Jump offers electric bikes. Customers can grab any available bicycle and leave it at their destination, with a typical rental costing $1 per half-hour across the board, aside from electric bike program Jump, which charges $2 for a 30-minute trip.

“We wanted to see how they would fit in, if they would fit into the District,” Sam Zimbabwe, chief project delivery officer at the D.C. Department of Transportation said at the Oct. 30 meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith).

Three Ward 2 advisory neighborhood commissions are planning to host a joint meeting on dockless bicycle sharing before the year is up. ANC 2E unanimously passed a resolution last week supporting a joint town hall with ANC 2A (Foggy Bottom, West End) and 2B (Dupont Circle).

ANC 2E chair Joe Gibbons expressed worries that bikes would be left in national parks, congest Georgetown’s narrow streets and impede safety, especially when the weather turns.

“They’re leaving them on corners,” Gibbons said. “The problem we’re having is that our sidewalks aren’t big enough; we’re not suburban. This is not a good initiative for the handicapped.”

Dockless bicycle sharing allows bike rentals to end anywhere, without relying on a docking station. (Grace Bird/The Current/October 2017)

ANC 2A chair Patrick Kennedy told The Current that dockless bikes are especially useful to Foggy Bottom residents, who confront gridlocked traffic and full Capital Bikeshare stations daily.

“It’s widened the pool of people who feel comfortable riding bikes,” Kennedy told The Current. “That’s a good thing for the city — you just need to tighten up on some of the regulations.”

Kennedy expressed support for a joint ANC meeting, saying he plans to weigh in on the program and help find solutions to its kinks.

ANC 2B’s Randy Downs confirmed that his commission would participate in the joint meeting. For one thing, the commission would like to ensure that “the program is equitable across the city — not just in the high-density areas, not just in Ward 2.”

But ANC 2F (Logan Circle) appears more skeptical about fundamental aspects of dockless bikeshare operations. At last week’s meeting, commissioners unanimously supported sending a letter to Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh — chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment — with worries that bikes may be stolen, vandalized or parked in the middle of sidewalks.

“Unfortunately, the dockless bike program wasn’t well thought out,” ANC 2F chair John Fanning wrote in an email. “In my opinion, the program is turning into a mess.”

Will Handsfield, transportation director for the Georgetown Business Improvement District, said that in his experience most riders have been using the bikes sensibly.

“Our biggest concerns about what could happen have not come true,” Handsfield said. “Most users of this dockless system are doing it right. Most people put the bikes in the appropriate locations: in between tree boxes, or on an existing bike rack.”

Geofencing, a technology that bars riders from leaving dockless bikes in certain places like national parks, is still in its early stages. But Handsfield said the technology would help mitigate some problems, such as preventing riders from leaving bikes on the narrow C&O Canal towpath.

Zimbabwe told The Current that it is too early to say how the dockless bikeshare program is faring in D.C. The Transportation Department is assessing the program on an ongoing basis, Zimbabwe said, and will discuss results in the coming months.

David Alpert, executive director of DC Sustainable Transportation, predicted that problems caused by dockless bikes will be solved with time and said that they provide a particularly affordable transportation option. While dockless programs don’t yet offer lower membership rates, a Capital Bikeshare ride of less than 30 minutes costs $2 — double most of its dockless competitors.