Earlier this month, a former mayor of San Luis Obispo, California, wrote a letter to the editor of that town’s newspaper in which he felt it perfectly acceptable and cool to describe a proposed bikeway as a “gigantic urban rape.”
“Yes, rape!” Ken Schwartz wrote before graciously elaborating, “No other word would be proper. The rape will not be performed by a male penis, but by thousands of inanimate bicycles guided by individuals who will have absolutely no understanding of that precious tranquility they will be destroying in their mindless focus of getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ with the least possible inconvenience to themselves.”
I usually couldn’t be less concerned with what sort of transportation infrastructure some West Coast beach town’s choosing to tear itself asunder over. Rather, I’m presenting Schwartz’ words as an example — albeit a particularly extreme and misguided one — of how the combination of bicycles and public policy can often induce inexplicable psychotic reactions in otherwise seemingly sane people.
Local operational leads Jeff & Anthony went out with @tobysun to retrieve our bike in Deep Ellum together. It had been sawed in half & bolted to a telephone pole. With an assist from local utility services, it was removed safely. We are proud to serve the people & @CityOfDallas. pic.twitter.com/o9ePGIiQbW
— LimeBike (@limebike) January 19, 2018
For another example of this phenomenon, simply turn your eyes north to our cousins in Dallas. Since Big D’s decision last year to embrace anarchy and allow new-fangled dockless bike-sharing companies from around the world to operate within city limits with nary a regulation, public order’s broken down and chaos rules the land.
I took a train to Dallas last October expecting to hit up the State Fair, but instead all I found was a lurid Hieronymus Bosch nightmare come to life. Which is to say that, other than the thousands of colorful bikes now cluttering the city’s sidewalks, Dallas is still pretty much Dallas.
But now dockless bike-sharing companies like Ofo, Spin, and LimeBike have expressed interest in bringing their operations to Austin, where they naturally see an untapped market of potential users willing to pay a small fee to remotely unlock bikes designed for short trips.
As of this month, the Austin Transportation Department is already in the planning stages for a dockless pilot program, and unsurprisingly, public anxiety is running high. Are we setting ourselves up for the same level of mayhem and madness documented daily on Dallas’ tortured streets? Will cheap, Chinese-made bicycles clog the public right-of-way, wind up perched on fences, or pitched into Lady Bird Lake? Could these companies choke Austin B-cycle, the city-owned station-based bike-sharing operation, out of existence?
Each of those questions has the same answer — not if city staff can help it. Austin, it seems, is going out of its way to avoid the same mistakes Dallas made. Even before any of this mess up north started, we were already a few steps ahead of the game, thanks in part to B-Cycle. Since launching in 2013, that system has methodically grown from 11 to 63 stations and is, according to executive director Elliot McFadden, one of the few publicly-owned bike-sharing operations to cover its operating costs with ridership revenue alone.
Meanwhile, Dallas’ feeble stab at a B-Cycle of its own has so far netted the city a whopping two stations along with a website seemingly designed by a middle-schooler. So when the dockless companies came knocking last year, Dallas, dumb arrogant soulless sprawl-blob that it is, went full laissez-faire — and in mere months, a city where driving is as natural and universal as Pantera, strip clubs, and ostentatious displays of mindless wealth, suddenly found itself up to its eyeballs with an estimated 20,000 brightly-colored bicycles covering its sidewalks.
The subsequent consequences of this stunning display — even by Dallas standards — of policy-free governance has caught national headlines, working quickly to poison the well of public regard for dockless bike-sharing. News reports and social media accounts spotlight heaps of cheap bikes piled on sidewalks, stacked in front yards, thrown into public waterways, or used as kindling for urban campfires.
Things finally came to a head last month when Dallas officials looked at their job descriptions and decided to try to govern their way out of the mess they created. That debacle has vindicated Austin’s highly cautious approach, which actually isn’t as uncommon as you think. You might not know it based on the volume of negative coverage, but Dallas is hardly the only U.S. city in which dockless companies are already operating.
Other burgs — notably Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Seattle — consciously avoided Dallas’ hold-my-beer approach by realizing beforehand that a profit-making venture operating in scarce public right-of-way subject to ADA requirements ought to face some level of regulation. And it seems to be going pretty well, for the most part! It just so happens that Austin will have the luxury of using the lessons learned from the implementation of the dockless model in these cities to help develop its own pilot program.
What that will end up looking like, of course, remains to be seen, but I won’t be terribly surprised if it includes stuff like permitting fees; a cap on the number of bikes any given company can deploy; parking and safety rules backed by the threat of impoundment; and limits on the number of bikes a company is allowed to have per square mile or so. Another keen idea worth exploring comes from Sacramento, where the city wants to require dockless companies to install 1.5 rack spaces for every bike they put on the street.
That’s just one of the ways in which a successfully-managed dockless program could reap dividends for bicycling in a city as a whole. The ubiquity of cheap bikes always within spitting distance could lead to a surge in cyclists on Austin’s streets, a phenomenon that tends to lead to more alert and considerate drivers — imagine that!
If the city can strike a data-sharing deal with the companies, which is something that at least LimeBike’s folks have told me they’re totally down with, ATD’s planners will suddenly gain access to a rich vein of behavior and route data that can guide decisions about where and how to target new bike-friendly infrastructure investments (Or, they could just listen to me and just build protected lanes all over the dang city, but whatever, I’m not mad).
— Martin Harnevie (@martinharnevie) January 10, 2018
But somewhat ominously, there’s one threat the city’s pilot program can’t fully address. Last November, Bluegogo, one of the largest dockless companies in China, went belly-up, in the process vaporizing potentially hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of customer deposits — though not every dockless company holds deposits, thank god. The unexpected bankruptcy reinforced the notion that this industry is another tech sector bubble being inflated beyond its limits by a stampede of feckless venture capital. Dockless bike-sharing, after all, seemed to appear overnight, and pessimists worry it could disappear just as quickly.
It’s all, as the kids say, a bit of a sticky wicket — but if things work out, Austin will be all the better for it. And no matter what happens, I’m personally looking forward to some very compellingly unhinged letters to the editor in the months ahead.