Dockless bike share? Proceed with caution

Ryan Young

Another year, another disruption to the way you move around Austin. This time, it’s called dockless bike share, and it goes something like this: Take B-cycle, the bike-sharing system we already know and love, and get rid of the stations and docks. Just let anybody park their rented bicycle anywhere.

And now, Austin City Council just approved a one-year pilot. What’s going to happen? Maybe we should look to other cities, where dockless bikes have been popular with users but have also made a big mess on city streets. Austin should learn from these cities and carefully regulate dockless bike-sharing so that the positives outweigh the negatives.

First, there’s Seattle, where residents and visitors have made a sport out of stashing the city’s fleet of 8,000 dockless bikes in the most bewildering places. They’ve left bikes on top of a statue, in the middle of a park, perched on top of a wooden pier and even underwater — and the bike-share companies aren’t even punishing them.

You see, it turns out “park your bike anywhere” really does mean anywhere.

Closer to home, there’s Dallas, where five different companies are competing in the dockless bike-share market. The city has so many bikes — perhaps 20,000 of them — that the supply of bikes far outstrips the demand for rides. Now, downtown Dallas is “drowning” in dockless bikes. Dallas News columnist Robert Wilonsky counted 77 parked bikes over the course of a one-minute stroll, while D Magazine writer Zac Crain found sidewalks littered with entire “obstacle courses” of parked bikes and abandoned bikes with missing wheels.

If Austin doesn’t carefully limit the number of dockless bikes, there will be too many bikes with nowhere to go, just like Dallas. Meanwhile, pranksters will stick dockless bikes up in trees if there were no deterrents in place, as in Seattle.

The dockless bike share pilot does have some merit. Unlike B-cycle, you don’t have to worry about finding a station to park your bike. That makes dockless bike sharing easier and more convenient, and Seattle’s system is a success despite the embarrassing parking jobs. The dockless bikes are three times as popular as the traditional docked bikes.

Austin should reap the benefits of dockless bikes without sharing the mess. One way to do that is to cap the number of bikes. Fortunately, the city is already planning to do just that. In addition, the city will talk with other cities to find out what works well and what doesn’t, according to public information specialist Jen Samp.

We should go one step further and penalize vandals that leave bikes in disruptive locations. They need to learn: Don’t litter with bikes. Don’t mess with Texas.

Young is a computer science senior from Bakersfield, California. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @ryanayng.