Are dockless bike-shares going to begrime our cities?

dockless bikeshare in Toronto
CC BY 2.0 Well, they do call it Dropbike, someone is just following instructions/ Lloyd Alter

A lot of people are complaining about bikes being left everywhere. They are wrong; this is the future.

Remember when Citibikes begrimed New York City for the first time, and residents complained that they were losing much needed street parking to bike stations and co-ops complained that scruffy Citibike users were lollygagging around their lobbies? Good times.



Now, poor Dorothy Rabinowitz can complain about the begriming of cities around the world by dockless bike-share systems. She won’t be alone; a lot of people are worried about this, including experts like Mikael Colville-Andersen.

Unlike the Bixi/Citibike systems, there are no docking stations; each bike has its own GPS and cellular connection. A user with the app on their phone simply takes a shot of the QR code on the bike it unlocks, and you ride away. When you get to your destination, just lock the bike and leave it. No need to search for a station with an open slot; just park it anywhere. And they often are anywhere and everywhere.

Unlike most urban bike shares, there is little municipal involvement in these, and no subsidies. Instead, bikes are being dropped by the thousands by private companies backed by lots of venture capital. In China, they are taking over the cities, with 1.5 million bikes in Shanghai alone. Writing in Wired, Felix Salmon thinks they are a wonderful thing, great for short distances downtown. He notes that there has been bit of chaos, with bikes piled everywhere, at the bottom of canals and the top of trees. But he is optimistic and convinced that they will be transformative:

Large-scale urban changes, then, are for the first time being made in the most democratic and human-scaled way imaginable. The driving force is not urban planners or all-powerful property developers; rather, it’s thousands of people on bikes, each making individual, idiosyncratic decisions… Move over, city planners: A few million bicyclists are going to have the kind of impact you can only dream of.

In London, Former TreeHugger contributor Matt Sparkes, who now speaks for Ofo, hasn’t seen these problems. He tells Martin Love of the Guardian:

“We’ve had very few thefts,” he says. “And riders are remarkably tidy, too. You can leave them anywhere, but users tend to park them up next to other bikes.” What about vandalism? People like to break things just because they can. But Matt says there have been very few incidents. “We had one thrown off a bridge in Cambridge.”

Others see a “tragedy of the commons,” described by Dominic Rushe in the Guardian as “the economic theory that individuals using a shared resource often act according to their own interests and to the detriment of the shared resource…With bikes literally littering the street, riders become less mindful of how they treat the bikes and where they leave them when there is always another to pick up.”

A lot of people (including this writer) think that the aesthetic problem of too many bikes begriming the streets is a bit silly, given the number of cars that people leave on sidewalks and in bike lanes. But some of the companies are trying to deal with this; Toronto’s pilot dockless scheme, Dropbike, is promoting Havens, which are like docking stations without the docking equipment.

It’s indefensible to shrug as bikes clutter up sidewalks and end up in weird places — companies must be involved in organizing shared bikes. Since spring, Havens have been Dropbike’s unique solution to the chaos of dockless bike sharing… The Havens system retains the organization of a docked model with the affordability of a dockless system. Havens are the best of both worlds.

Except online the docking station, the use of a haven is optional. And there are other worries; Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog has major concerns.


It’s easy to dismiss this crankiness as a fussy double standard that people never apply to the illegally parked cars littering city sidewalks, crosswalks, and bus stops. But there are bigger questions about the venture-funded dockless bike-share model that go deeper than the propriety of where the bikes are parked.


She quotes one study finding that 12 percent of the bikes had “major defects,” like damaged brakes or missing lights, which pose safety hazards. She notes that nobody is really releasing data on the number of trips: “Insisting on a basic level of trip data transparency should be a core demand from any city before allowing the companies to operate.” The companies are all burning through venture capital now, and probably not making any money. Schmitt worries about the success and survival of these companies, concluding:

It’s possible — maybe even likely — that some of the venture-backed bike-share companies will emerge as viable in the long run, providing useful urban mobility services. How much should cities bet on that?

Perhaps I am a cockeyed optimist, but I believe that this can actually work. When Paris got its first Velib bikes, there were endless stories about vandalism and pulling bikes out of the Seine. But the vandals all got bored and you don’t hear many of those stories anymore; the few jerks have become an acceptable cost of doing business. As dockless bike shares find their balance of users and bikes, and they just become part of the background, I suspect the same thing might happen.

There are those who look at the problems and say this is why we can’t have nice things because jerks will always come and wreck it. But in general, jerks are a small subset of the population and a cost of doing business. I often quote my favorite tweet in the history of twitter from Taras Grescoe:

grescoeTaras Grescoe/Screen capture

Felix Salmon writes that “Bikes plus smartphones, then, might just be enough to usher in a new golden age for cities.” The dockless bike share is an ingenious combination of 19th and 21st century technology that just might be what we are looking for.

Are dockless bike-shares going to begrime our cities?
A lot of people are complaining about bikes being left everywhere. They are wrong; this is the future.

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