What will D.C. do about dockless bikes?

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Dockless bikes, while providing another public transportation option, are being left anywhere by their riders. The way the bikes are disposed of is becoming an issue for residents. (Shani Madden/The Current)

The dockless bikes that have popped up in recent months on Washington, D.C.’s streets – and sidewalks – have a strong advocate in Colin Browne.

“Once we can get past sidewalk issues, I think the dockless bikeshare program will be a great asset for the city,” said Browne, communications director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). “Dockless bikes offer flexibility. You can pick one up where it is and leave it where you’re going. They provide ‘last-mile solutions’ for a lot of folks.”

Getting past the sidewalk issues is going to be a hard sell for Rebecca Maydak. She belongs to Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3/4G (Chevy Chase). The ANC heard from public officials and discussed the bikes at its Feb. 26 meeting.

“I’ve got nothing but complaints about them,” Maydak said. “[Bicyclists] leave them in the front yards of houses where people aren’t using them. At the Silver Spring Metro station, the Capital Bikeshare station is a block away. It’s all neat. At the station itself, there’s a heap of dockless bikes. It looks like a junkyard.

“I’m a senior citizen. I don’t want to have to move somebody else’s bike to walk down the sidewalk.”

Commissioner Dan Bradfield also panned the dockless bike program.

“I have 23 written complaints [from constituents],” he said. “The bikes are tossed in yards, thrown in flower beds.”

Chris Mitchell is a lawyer who works in an office near the Farragut North Metro station, and as a general principle is glad to see people using bikes.

“I’m all for the concept,” Mitchell said in an interview. “The more people on bikes, the better – getting cars off the streets. And I like the bright colors [of the bicycles for rent]. It makes you aware they are available.”

But he is not impressed with the manners or the intelligence of some who use dockless bikes.

“I don’t like the messiness of how the bikes are left behind and abandoned. They get dumped just anywhere,” he said. “You’d think people would have enough common sense to save us the eyesore of bikes lying down on the sidewalks.”

Sam Zimbabwe of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) attended the ANC meeting in Chevy Chase and talked about the trial program for dockless bikes, which began in October. He compared the two bicycle rental options on offer locally.

“Dockless bikeshare does not mean Capital Bikeshare is going anyplace,” Zimbabwe said. “But dockless bikeshare might help where Capital Bikeshare doesn’t have stations. Dockless bikeshare doesn’t need so much infrastructure – there’s no need for docking stations.”

There are demographic differences between users of the two programs.

“[The use of] Capital Bikeshare has skewed whiter and wealthier than the region as a whole,” Zimbabwe said. 

Zimbabwe acknowledges there have definitely been problems with the roll-out of what he said is also called “free-floating” bikeshare.

“There have been two big fears. There’s a lot of impact on public space. There have been issues with bikes tipping over. And the quality of the bikes is not super-great.”

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Five private companies provide the dockless bikes, unlike Capital Bikeshare, which is basically a form of public transportation available from DDOT. The five dockless companies are Jump, Limebike, Mobike, OFO and Spin. The different companies have different equipment.

“Spin bikes, for example, are equipped with double kickstands that tip over less than others,” Zimbabwe said.

Browne said neighboring jurisdictions have come up with regulatory solutions to some of the problems with dockless bikes. He described the contracts with the bike companies as “specific and rigorous” regarding sidewalk space and maintenance of the rolling stock.

“If callers complain about the location of bikes or broken bikes in Montgomery County, the companies will be fined if they don’t take care of problems within a specific time,” Browne said.

Joe Gibbons is chairman of the Georgetown ANC and strongly supports alternatives to automobile travel. But in an interview, he said the free-floating bikes have posed challenges in his neighborhood.

“The problem is with our walkways,” Gibbons said. “They are very tight real estate. Even when a rider is very responsible and parks the bike carefully, the wind can blow it down. They cause severe problems for people in wheelchairs, or someone pushing a stroller, or for toddlers. What happens if they fall on somebody?”

Randy Downs of the Dupont Circle ANC thinks dockless bikes are “a fantastic fit” for the District. In an interview, he explained that dockless bikeshare got its start in China.

“They are a huge option for public transportation there,” he said. “In China they designate certain parking areas [for dockless bikes] in highly dense neighborhoods like Dupont Circle. In less dense neighborhoods the tree box area – between the sidewalk and the street – is a perfect location for folks to park their bikes.”

Downs said using a dockless bike to get around is also easy on the pocket book.

“Some dockless bikes operate for a dollar a ride. That’s less than Metro, Uber or a taxicab.”

Browne said the cost factor makes the user base a lot broader for dockless bikes.

“It’s a lot easier to rent a dockess bike than one from Capital Bikeshare. Capital Bikeshare puts a $100 hold on your credit card when you rent one. A $10 Apple gift card from 7-Eleven is 10 rides on a dockless bike.”

But Browne said you must own a smartphone to figure out where to find a bicycle. Capital Bikeshare, by contrast, offers reliability.

“You know where they are and where to drop them off,” Browne said. “Dockless bikeshare offers flexibility. You pick up the bike where it is and leave it where you’re going.”

Which he realizes can cause problems.

“Because it’s easier to leave them anywhere, people leave them anywhere, and the bikes fall over over. That’s not good.”

Some companies, such as Jump, offer bikes that are more about ease of movement than exercise, which as Evelyn Waugh said, stirs up unhealthy humors in the body and causes disease.

“The bikes have an electric assist motor that gives you a boost. It makes it easier to go uphill,” she said. “These bikes are a car replacement for a short trip. You don’t have to find a place to park. A boost helps you get up the hill. If you have a backpackful of groceries, it’s easier.”

Browne described the options open to dockless bikeshare users in other cities owing to the miracle of modern technology, which allows science to annihilate distance.

“In San Francisco, Jump has partnered with Uber. When you open the app, it will tell you three drivers are near for $9 and two bikes for $2. But that has not rolled out in D.C. yet.”

Browne said the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

“Bicycles were not so visible in the past. These bikes are showing up everywhere in the city, so that means people are using them.”

A reporter for The Current happened upon one of the dockless bikes last week on his way to an assignment. Next to a stop for the G8 bus on Randolph Street N.E., behind the nursing home for the aged poor run by the Missionaries of Charity, was a red dockless Jump bicycle. The bike was locked to the pole displaying the bus stop sign. Inside the electric bicycle’s basket was a message to users: “Always lock the bike to a bike rack – otherwise additional charges will be applied.”

The trial period for dockless bikeshare ends in April. Zimbabwe asked citizens to offer their feedback on dockless bikes by sending an email to dockless.bikeshare@dc.gov.

Downs wants to see a thousand travel flowers bloom in Washington.

“As the population here continues to explode, and as climate change increases, it’s important to bring sustainable, low-carbon transportation options to the District,” he said.