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Boston Bike Share Wars: Should We Get Attached to Dockless Bikes?

The meteoric rise of bike share has transformed the streets of Boston in many positive ways with many more bikes on the streets thanks to bikeshare programs like Hubway, now Bluebikes, but they have not been without their share of problems. In the grand scheme, these are good problems to have, but they still must be addressed. Specifically right now, Boston and surrounding communities are being inundated with dockless bikes. This is in addition to the tremendous growth of the city-backed bike share program.

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Since the the launch of Hubway (now BlueBikes) which expanded from a starting fleet of 610 bicycles and 60 docking stations in 2011, Boston’s bikeshare program has continued to grow to now 1,800 bicycles at more than 200 stations in Cambridge, Somerville and Brookline.

Now, neighboring towns like Arlington and Newton have added their own bikeshare programs, but with the cheaper dockless bicycles of LimeBike, Spin and other dockless bikeshare companies. Along with Arlington and Newton, bikeshare programs now exist in Bedford, Belmont, Everett, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Needham, Revere, Waltham, Watertown and Winthrop. The bikes cost $1 for every 30 minutes of use, and unlike bikeshare systems used in Boston and other cities, riders don’t have to find a dock to park their rented bikes.

More bicycles in Boston is NOT a bad thing! The question is how these bike access services are going to co-exist and whether the city will embrace the private dockless biking companies (or at least their model) or resist them.

The new bikeshares have created a real problem. Millions of dollars have been invested in the standard bike-share system, with the bright blue bicycles and stationary docking areas growing ubiquitous throughout Boston. Although extremely popular, two issues have arisen that could impact Boston bike share’s future growth:

  • Lagging bike share equity;
  • Swelling numbers of dockless bicycles from private companies sprouting up in communities like Arlington, Medford and Newton, served by Blue Bikes (formerly Hubway).

The sudden explosion of dockless bicycle companies in cities have taken communities like Boston by surprise as they burst onto the stage, and the long-term impact is unclear.

Less concentration (or total lack) of bike share docking stations in outlying communities has been a long-standing problem since the program’s inception. It was always intended to be addressed gradually as the program grew. However, the issue of private companies swooping in with a dockless bike share option seems to have taken everyone by surprise. It’s not just the fact that there is competition. The problem is private investors like Blue Cross Blue Shield have invested in the bicycles, and the docking stations and ant to protect their investment, putting city officials who granted the docked bikeshare programs an exclusive contract in an awkward situation. The question is whether Blue Cross and other companies that have invested in a docked system will have incentive to continue that investment if they are deprived of market exclusivity.

According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials the most recent annual bike share report was the first wherein dockless bicycles were counted, dockless bicycles are used in just 4 percent of rides, but account for 44 percent of all bicycles on the ground in cities, nearly doubling the U.S. bike share footprint. The close of this year will give us a sense of whether these bike companies will crash and burn or adapt and thrive.

Boston Bike Share Disparity Among Neighborhoods

When bike share first came to Boston as Hubway, it started downtown Boston and later expanded into Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville, becoming Blue Bike earlier this year. So far, the docked BlueBike system is still restricted to just those four Boston municipalities, leaving many communities with inadequate or non-existent docking stations needed to make them a convenient transportation option.

If there are no docking stations at or none near a rider’s rider’s destination, it’s unlikely they will be able to take advantage of bike share. Consider that Cambridge has four times as many Blue Bike docking stations as Dorchester, which has a minority population.

Build-out of bike share programs require both time and money. Each docking station costs  roughly $30,000 to erect, not including the cost of acquiring the bicycles and helmets, plus maintenance. Ultimately bike share programs save money because they inflict far less punishment on our roads than motor vehicles, but the savings accrues over time and it doesn’t help cities generate the necessary funds right now.

Enter: Dockless bikes.

Dockless Bikes v. Boston Bikes

As the name suggests, dockless bikes are those that can be picked up and just left at the end of the ride. They can be stashed in regular bicycle racks or long sidewalks. They are left there until next rider comes along – or until the bike share comes and gets the bikes. This provides both a cost saving and increased convenience for the user. Most importantly, it allows for expanded – possibly infinite – mobility, as the user is not wedded anymore to where the docking station is located.

Dockless bicycle companies have become increasingly popular in Boston’s outskirt neighborhoods for a few reasons:

  • Bicycle inequity in underserved communities means some riders may  have no other alternative because they and/ or their destinations are too far from stationary docking locations.
  • Dockless bikes cost less, making them much more viable for a single short trip.
  • Dockless bicycles don’t need to be returned, so they can be located, picked up, unlocked, used and returned pretty much anywhere using an app.

Dockless bike company owners also have a competitive advantage because they don’t need to raise the capital to build the docking stations before they can launch the program. An added side benefit to transportation planners and advocates: operators can utilize real-time data to track rides start-to-finish, use that data to gather intelligence and determine which communities are most prime for the biggest investment in new bikes for long-range transportation planning and intermodal connections between transit and bikeshares.

Cities Get Crash Courses on Dockless Bikes

Dockless bicycle companies have been the greatest disruption to municipal bike share programs in the U.S., causing some cities to seek a pause to their growth until leaders can more closely analyze and determine if more regulations are necessary.

One of the issues is the potential loss in revenues to companies that contract with cities, given that cities have spent sizable sums creating bicycle-friendly infrastructure to offer companies with which they have forged an exclusive contract.

Free market competition isn’t bad in general, and may be essential to expansion of even standard bicycle docking programs. But the City of Boston has an exclusivity agreement with Blue Bikes. This has created some headaches when individual riders are picking up dockless bikes from areas that aren’t being served, riding them into areas that are and leaving them.

This is problematic for two reasons: First, the dockless bicycles aren’t carefully stored out of public rights-of-way like sidewalks, driveways, parking lots or bicycle lanes, at minimum blocking the public way and often also creating a potential injury risk to bicyclists and pedestrians. Second, these private dockless bike companies haven’t had to invest anything for infrastructure and policy, but are reaping the benefits.

Bicycle injury lawyers in Boston see the free market as shaping the future and Boston as it has in other metro centers like Washington, D.C.

A Possible Solution in the Bike Share Wars?

The good news is Boston isn’t the only city that has grappled with this, and others have found a way to overcome the challenges that “disruptive” dockless bicycle share providers pose to cities in this exact situation.

The Institute for Transportation and Development recently released an analysis of this issue in 15 different cities. What they discovered was that when local governments take the stance that dockless bike share is an extension of the city’s services and imposes regulation, they did extremely well.

Researchers also discovered people were using dockless bikes differently than regular bikes. For instance, station-based bicycle systems nationally report most trips occur on weekdays and mirror the 9-5 workday commuting patterns, with nearly half of all station-based bike share trips taking place during rush hours and more than two-thirds on weekdays. Contrast that with data we have from dockless bike share programs in Seattle, which reported a peak in the evening, with trips spread more throughout the day and most use seen on the weekends. This suggests the dockless bikes are being used more for recreational use.

That’s a relatively small sample to base policy on, but dockless bicycle companies claim such information is proprietary and thus won’t share it with cities. There is also a fair amount of volatility in the dockless bike share market, with several companies closing shop and/ or filing for bankruptcy.

So Boston bike injury lawyers are watching this with interest, knowing the city is keeping a close eye on the results of pilot efforts by these firms to better evaluate how these companies might work as partners in helping further the goals of bicycle equity, safety and mobility. We view these issues as part of the inevitable growing pains that come with the long-term process of forging sustainable transportation alternatives.

Contributing to the complexity of these issues, though, is now the entrance of scooter share companies in Boston and beyond. More to come soon on this development at BikeAttorney.com.

If you or someone you love has been injured in a Boston bicycle accident (we prefer the term “bike crash”), call for a free and confidential appointment at 1-888-789 BIKE (2453).

Additional Resources:

Bike Share in the U.S. in 2017, May 2018, National Association of City Transportation Officials

More Blog Entries:

Better Bicycle Infrastructure in Massachusetts Will Take Time, Feb. 21, 2018, Boston Bicycle Injury Attorney Blog