Is the future of bike share dockless?

SPIN bike share program
© SPIN

A new breed of bike share schemes comes with its own set of pros and cons.

Last week, I belatedly discovered that my city was getting a pair of bike share schemes this Monday. I just returned from my first ride on a bright orange SPIN, and I must say I'm impressed. The app helped me locate and unlock the bike with no problems, just three blocks from my house, and ending the ride (anywhere I wanted) was as simple as closing the lock again. And the ride—while not exactly a fancy bike experience—felt sturdy, well put together and safe. (I did bring a helmet from home to keep my better half happy.)

I believe it cost me a total of a dollar.

When I wrote about the scheme last week, dockless bike sharing had barely been on my radar. But as the comments to my original article make clear, these schemes are popping up in various forms in cities all over the world. A recent article over at Politico lays out the pros and cons of dockless versus docked bike shares. Here's the gist:

Cost to municipalities: Traditional docked bike share schemes have typically been supported by municipalities, sometimes with the help of a corporate partner. Because dockless bikes can be left anywhere that a normal bike can be parked, they don't require the same infrastructure investment and restocking vehicles that docked stations demand. In fact, cities are often simply passing an ordinance to allow such schemes, and then private operators are stepping in to fill the void.

Convenience: This one is obvious, but a docked bike share scheme requires me to live or work within walking distance of a dock so I can pick up or drop off a bike where I need. Dockless schemes, on the other hand, allow me to simply go to the nearest bike—assuming there is one nearby—and ride it to wherever I need it. I could, if I wanted to, simply park it on the corner outside my house until someone else chooses to pick it up. I actually left it on a busier thoroughfare next to a church, because I want to be mindful of neighborhood clutter. (See below.)

Quality: The Politico piece suggests one downside to dockless schemes may be the quality of the build, as dockless operators tend to flood a market with a critical mass of bikes in order to capture market share. So far, my experience both riding and visually inspecting the bikes here in Durham is that they are perfectly sturdy and should be built to last—but time will tell on that front.

Clutter and distribution: The flip-side of allowing riders to leave a bike wherever they want is that riders can leave a bike wherever they want. That means you might find one parked outside your house, or we may end up with 25 parked outside a busy office building or popular hangout spot, and none in less dense residential locations where folks might want to begin their journey. But I suspect that may shake itself out over time. One commenter suggested, for example, that riders could get reduced rides or even credit on their accounts for picking up bikes and returning them to more traveled locations. The SPIN app also allows you to report improperly parked bikes, or request relocation from your private property.

Overall, as the Politico article suggests, it's way too soon to say whether dockless will replace, augment, or ultimately lose to more traditional, centralized docked station schemes. Much will depend on if and how people end up using these schemes, and whether the companies are nimble enough to adjust their operations to meet demand and iron out any kinks. The Guardian just published some rather shocking photographs of a mountain of discarded bike-share bikes, the result of bankruptcy of one of China's big players in the industry, suggesting that early industry "arrogance" has led to supply far outstripping demand.

For my part, as someone who owns a bike and is considering an e-bike, I can't imagine I'll use these things too often. But I'm glad they are there. If I take a bus into town and want to move to a different spot downtown, or if I'm meeting with friends for a beer(s) and would rather not ride home, this scheme provides a flexible, fun and convenient option that will surely enhance many people's car-less travel opportunities. Particularly for apartment dwellers, who may not always want to lug a bike up and downstairs or out of the parking lot, this provides a quick, convenient and cost effective option to add to the mix. Whether that's enough demand to create a viable, for-profit business model—and to do so without snarling up the sidewalks with lurid orange and green bicycles—that will remain to be seen.

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