DoBi or Not DoBi, That Is the Question

Dockless bike-share companies are courting Chicago. Should we let them set up shop?

Various types of bike-share available in Washington D.C. Not shown: Jump. Photo: David Alpert, Greater, Greater Washington
Various types of bike-share available in Washington D.C. Not shown: Jump. Photo: David Alpert, Greater, Greater Washington

[Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield publishes a weekly transportation column in the Chicago Reader. We syndicate the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online.]

The Seattle-based Twitter feed Dockless Bike Fail hilariously showcases the downside of dockless bike-sharing, one of the newest developments in the shared-mobility boom. With this technology, customers can use a cell phone app to locate and access cycles distributed around a city and secured with built-in locks. Unlike traditional bike-share systems like Chicago’s Divvy, there’s no need to install expensive docking stations, and users can leave the cycles right at their destinations.

However, as Dockless Bike Fail illustrates, since the bikes are typically “free-locked,” not secured to a rack or pole, it’s easy for clueless customers, vandals, and pranksters to leave the cycles in hazardous, or downright ridiculous, locations. The feed includes photos of dockless bikes scattered across sidewalks, hanging from stop signs and trees, and even submerged in Seattle’s Lake Union.

Some creative wiseacres built this tower of LimeBike and Ofo cycles in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Photo: Dockless Bike Fail
Some wiseacres built this tower of LimeBike and Ofo cycles in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Photo: Dockless Bike Fail

Due to this potential for street clutter (Amsterdam has already banned the technology for clogging its bike racks), as well as questions about maintenance, geographic equity, and competition with Divvy, Chicago hasn’t yet permitted dockless providers to operate here. However, bike advocates in Seattle and Washington D.C., two of the nation’s leading laboratories for dockless bike share (aka DoBi), say the technology is a generally positive addition. Their local counterparts argue that Chicago should also allow DoBi operators—who have recently been courting city officials—to set up shop, provided that the systems are run in a responsible and equitable way, so that they complement, rather than disrupt, Divvy.

The American dockless boom got rolling in Seattle this summer after the city’s traditional bike-share system Pronto tanked due to low ridership, blamed on a relatively small number of poorly located stations, plus a local helmet law. Currently San Mateo, California’s LimeBike, San Francisco’s Spin, and Beijing’s Ofo each have more than 2,000 bikes in the city, with plans for expansion. (Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s former senior advisor David Spielfogel is a board member with LimeBike, and former Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, who oversaw the 2013 Divvy launch, joined Spin’s board earlier this month.) In comparison, Divvy currently has about 6,000 cycles and 580 stations.

“The free-floating bike-share companies have been amazing,” Seattle Bike Blog editor Tom Fucoloro says. He reports that, unlike Divvy bikes, the cycles make their way to all neighborhoods, and the simpler pricing scheme—a dollar for a 30-minute ride—is much more attractive to casual users. Referring to Divvy’s less intuitive day-pass rules, Fucoloro says, “The $10 for 24 hours of unlimited 30-minute trips thing is dead.”

The vast majority of DoBis in Seattle are parked correctly, Fucoloro says, and cycles that block walkways or wheelchair ramps are usually moved promptly by passersby. But vandalism of the bikes has been a problem. “Like anything in the public realm,” he says, “the public has its say about it.”

In September, Washington D.C., home to the successful Capital Bikeshare docked system, launched an experiment by allowing Spin, LimeBike, Beijing-based Mobike, and Jump, an electrical-assist bike company from San Francisco, to release up to 400 cycles each. Ex-Chicagoan Payton Chung, a director with the Urban Land Institute planning think tank and a longtime cycling advocate, reports that there are often mechanical problems with the bikes and they tend to accumulate downtown, which is located downhill from most of the city. However, he says the availability of the popular, sometimes-scarce Capital Bikeshare vehicles seems to have improved since hundreds of new rides hit the streets. Divvy availability is currently an issue here—many Loop stations tend to be empty by 6 PM.

Dockless bike share also has the potential to address Divvy’s geographic equity problem. While the system’s service area currently includes almost two-thirds of the city’s residents, station density tends to be higher in more populous and affluent areas, and many outlying neighborhoods, including several lower-income African-American and Latino communities, don’t have docks.

2016 ExpansionMap_EvOP_160526_v3
The current Divvy coverage area excludes many outlying Chicago neighborhoods. Click to Enlarge.

The city plans this spring to add 400 more bikes and 40 stations, funded by Divvy revenue and a federal transportation grant plus. The new docks will increase density in some lower-income areas. But since the Trump administration has threatened to cut all federal funding for bike projects, expanding the system may be more difficult in the future. Dockless technology could be a way to serve more Chicago neighborhoods that would require no public funding, and it could tax generate revenue for our cash-strapped city.

Slow Roll Chicago cofounder Oboi Reed says he wants to tap dockless bike share’s potential to improve transportation access in communities of color. At the launch party for his new mobility justice organization Equiticity earlier this month, he announced that Jump and Ofo have each offered the group and partner organizations 100-plus cycles to establish “bike libraries” for residents in North Lawndale and Riverdale.

In early November Ofo delivered 14 “seed bikes” to the Riverdale-based bike group We Keep You Rollin’. The full bike fleets for Riverdale and North Lawndale are slated to arrive in April.

In addition, Ofo recently notified me that the company hopes to release 50 bikes on the Northwestern University campus later this fall, which would represent its first launch at a U.S. university.

The full details of the Equiticity bike library programs haven’t been hashed out, but leaving dockless cycles out on Chicago streets would probably require the city’s blessing, and so far officials haven’t given it. At a Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council meeting earlier this month, Chicago Department of Transportation officials said Reed asked for a letter of support for the bike libraries, but CDOT declined because the city doesn’t have a policy on the new technology.

During a recent local panel discussion on bike share, CDOT’s Amanda Woodall, who helps manage Divvy, voiced her concern that, rather than improving access for underserved neighborhoods, DoBi companies might just focus on more profitable areas. She also noted that there have been cases in other cities where companies dropped off bikes but neglected to maintain them. Another issue is that dockless systems could potentially cannibalize Divvy revenue, which has been used to fund safety improvements such as the recent upgrade of Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park and Bucktown.

A poorly parked dockless bike was blocking a crosswalk in D.C. last week, Photo: Payton Chung

At the advisory council meeting, transportation chief Rebekah Scheinfeld said CDOT has been discussing dockless bike share with the mayor’s office and other departments. She noted that Karen Tamley, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities, has raised concerns that poorly parked DoBi bikes could create a pedestrian hazard, especially for those with visual impairments.

Deputy CDOT commissioner Sean Wiedel says his department met with Spin representatives in October to discuss permitting issues, and the company has also reached out to local bike nonprofits about contracting with it to maintain the cycles. “We expect to be meeting with dockless providers and other stakeholders in the coming months,” he says.

Spin CEO Derrick Ko promises that his company’s technology would be a positive addition to our city’s bike scene. “Chicago has a fantastic system in Divvy,” he says. “We’re interested in complementing Divvy and bringing affordable bike share to all neighborhoods.” He adds that his company will work with the city to ensure that “the right kind of regulations and operator responsibilities are in place to ensure responsible use by all riders.”

Active Transportation Alliance governmental relations director Kyle Whitehead says the group is excited about the potential for dockless bike-share to improve cycling here, as long as the focus is on providing good service, in an equitable manner. “We’re looking for quality, safe and affordable programs that make the overall bike share system better in the short- and long-term.”

Sharon Feigon, director of the Chicago-based Shared Use Mobility Center, says it’s understandable that the city wants to proceed with caution. “I do worry about the pictures I’ve seen of bikes piled up everywhere, so that clearly does have to be addressed.” But Feigon, who formerly lead Igo Carsharing, adds that Chicago also shouldn’t be overly timid about allowing DoBi operators to bring their fleets to town. “When I was running Igo and Zipcar showed up, we were very upset, but in reality it helped build a bigger culture for car-sharing,” she says. “It’s always scary to have a new player in town.”

Update 11/16/17, 6:00 PM: CDOT deputy commissioner Sean Wiedel said at the recent pedestrian advisory council meeting that CDOT was “asked to write a letter of support” for the Equiticity bike libraries, and the department declined to do so. However, after the publication of this article, Equiticity’s Oboi Reed contacted me to say that his organization actually asked CDOT if it could list the department and Divvy as partners on a letter of interest Equiticity wrote as part of a grant application to the Better Bike Share Partnership, and CDOT declined the request. Wiedel confirmed that he misspoke at the meeting. The grant would be used to fund the operations of the Riverdale bike library.

Reed also says that, contrary to what a representative from Jump Mobility, one of the bike library donors, told me at the Equiticity launch party, the library programs won’t involve leaving any locked bikes out on the street for access by multiple members. Since users will instead have to pick up the bikes from community organizations, licenses and permits from the city for use of the public way won’t be necessary, he says.

  • Anne A

    Dockless bike share could be more practical logistically for low density neighborhoods like Beverly, Sauganash, and others where large residential areas could make it difficult for dock-based systems like Divvy to have sufficient station density to function well. I find it ironic that lots of folks clamor for Divvy but have absolutely no clue about how the system really works and the how much network density is needed for it to be really useful to users.

  • planetshwoop

    In a sense this feels similar to Megabus to me. Instead of paying for a station, they used the existing public right of way to board and drop off passengers. The fares were cheaper, but my goodness was it miserable for anyone who needed to use that same right of way that the company was abusing.

    I completely understand this is a cheap way to quickly get a bike share up and running. But the cost is to public space, like Megabus. I’m sure most will be handled responsibly. But I can easily see piles of them around the train stations, in plazas, etc.

    I could be wrong but it feels like we’re allowing companies to take up public space for the purported benefit of cycling (instead of Uber/cabs/transit). If they were newspaper boxes instead of bikes — you could put a newspaper box anywhere — I don’t think I’d be in favor of it.

  • A dollar for a medium long ride?

    Divvy should be integrated with Ventra likewise. Charge a regular amount until you pile up enough for the half hour free rate.

  • Sterling Archer

    Has dockless bike share been used successfully in any cities that are as large as Chicago in terms of land area? I’m imagining scenarios where bikes end up in far away portions of the city away from where most of the riders will be which will essentially put the bikes out of use. The benefit of Divvy is that you can count on station locations to (usually) have a bike when you need it. Having a bike that ended up getting left in the middle of an industrial area that’s 8 miles away doesn’t really help anyone.

  • Andrew

    As cycling advocates, I think we should be in favor of getting as many bikes on the street as possible, with the lowest possible barrier to entry. My dream is that one day bikes will be so ubiquitous that they are always the easiest option for short/medium distance trips. Welcoming dockless bikes can help us realize this dream.

    I also think the pricing structure is great for enticing people for whom a $10 day pass or a $100 annual pass is a barrier to entry.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    One benefit — provided it is clearly/strongly written in to contracts — of dockless, along with docked, bike share systems that utilize GPS-on-bike, is the data that they can provide on routes/trips people take. Over time, this data can be very valuable in helping transportation planners and others better understand cycling and the choices cyclists make.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Of course, there’s always the $5 Divvy for Everyone annual memberships for Chicagoans making less than $31K:

  • johnaustingreenfield

    DoBi launched recently in Dallas, which is 340 square miles compared to Chicago’s 227 square miles. Dallas has about half the population of Chicago, so obviously it’s much less dense.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    There’s also going to be a lot of people who feel $10 to ride a bike a mile is a bad value. I’m guessing for the short trips DIvvy is good for an Uber would be cheaper. The annual pass is a much better value but its a commitment. I’d like to see DIvvy have a similar price structure to CTA with single ride, daily, monthly and yearly passes.

  • Sterling Archer

    Good to know. I still like the idea of Divvy and having bike docks but it will be interesting to see how the system in Dallas works out.

  • The notion that these bikes are going to end up in under-served neighborhoods seems highly unlikely to me.

  • Sterling Archer

    You can pay for the Divvy annual pass fat a rate of $10/month instead of paying $100 for the whole year up front. It’s a little more expensive ($120 vs. $100) but $10/month is relatively affordable.

  • planetshwoop

    You should read about dockless bike share in China where it is way more common.

    I asked someone in Shanghai about it and he said a) the price helped encourage ridership b) most people played by the rules c) def some didn’t and it was irritating. But overall he thought it was a good thing.

  • Andrew

    Agreed. I’m frustrated with bike share pricing in the United States — I think it’s far too expensive. Our programs are much more expensive than counterparts in Europe (see link at bottom), and that may be driving riders away potential riders away.

    Making bike share cheaper requires subsidies, but bike share is exactly the type of public good that should be subsidized!

    Bringing it back to dockless bikes: yes, I know that a lot of $1 rides will quickly add up to more than a $100 annual Divvy membership, but I welcome an additional pricing structure that could entice people to hop on a bike for a short trip without committing to an annual membership.

  • rwy

    I only have a use for a divvy bike like 3 or 4 times a year or so. The annual plan isn’t a good deal either. A $3 ride option like they have in Milwaukee would be great.

  • David Henri

    I welcome any type of bike share. I’ve been trying to get Divvy into my neighborhood (Jefferson Park) for two years now. They don’t even respond. It’s really sickening. Please, bring on some competition.

  • Jacob Wilson

    If the concept is sound Divvy should do it themselves. Private companies lack transparency and accountability, look no further than the ride share ‘disruption’. If Divvy had been a private company there would still only be docks on the lakefront and downtown and there would definitely be no D4E.

    I think part of what makes Divvy’s pricing seem noncompetitive compared to the $1/ride scheme is that it’s actually a self sustaining system that’s makes money and has a long term commitment to the community. If you think these venture capital backed bike share companies can make a profit AND provide quality service (long term maintenance, balancing, etc) for $1/ride I think you’re kidding yourself.

  • rohmen

    I’m by no means a libertarian or someone that thinks privatization is always better than a public service, but short term bicycle rental (which is all Divvy is) has always had a fairly unregulated private market element to it. The appeal of Divvy as a public service is that it should then take equity into account as to where stations go, instead of just pure profit motive. Ironically, though, standalone bike share is getting its foot in the door here by picking up the slack in areas Divvy isn’t servicing.

    I agree that the rub will be how well the private companies deal with upkeep, not cluttering public ways with bikes, etc., BUT the City can deal with that by regulating these entities through their business licensing. If they don’t maintain the bikes and keep them out of the way, pull or refuse to renew the license.

  • rohmen

    Outside of two issues—(1) will this kill Divvy, and then result in the private companies only focusing on a few select areas; and (2) will people not be a-holes and park them right—I’m struggling to understand why people are upset with this as a concept.

    You could walk into a LBS and rent a bike, or go to one of the lakefront bike rental companies and do the same. This is just private rental (which has always existed largely unregulated) on a larger scale. If it gets people on bikes, what’s the issue? If they start clogging racks, deal with it by making part of the licensing fee for these companies an infrastructure charge to put in more racks.

    People seem to be having a very anti-privatization reaction to a service (bicycle short term rental) that really hasn’t traditionally been a public good, and to be honest hasn’t really been implement as a public good with flying colors.

  • Asher Of LA

    “Where are the bikes being used?

    What’s really cool is that it’s pretty popular in Rainier Valley, a somewhat lower density, more diverse neighborhood. A lot of the previous bike share plans had written it off, whereas the dockless companies launched with the boundary of Seattle city limits from day one.”

  • Asher Of LA

    Part of the problem with the $100 annually pricing model IMO: it’s polarizing. It encourages a bifurcation of ridership, among people who never ride and people who ride almost daily. When people start to ride occasionally, they’re more inclined to view biking as a valid form of travel, which means more space and protection for it.

    And these companies still provide fairly affordable subscription models often, such as $30 a month for Limebike, $15 for low-income people IIRC. Far cheaper than transit.

    “My dream is that one day bikes will be so ubiquitous that they are always the easiest option for short/medium distance trips. ”

    That’s exactly the vision of one dockless CEO: “we want to become the default short-trip, on-demand service for getting people around cities.”

  • Randy Neufeld

    Bike libraries are a very different type of bikeshare and a great idea for Chicago. There’s no competition with Divvy and no bikes being left helter-skelter. It’s not a system of taking bikes from dock to dock but simply providing people with bikes for multi-hour or multi-day loans. No bikes left all over the place, you know where to find them. Perfect for neighborhood use. The same app tech used in DoBi can be used for bike library check-out. Similar to ZipCar the user is responsible for the bike and proper parking until it is returned. In neighborhoods like Riverdale and North Lawndale, a bike library is probably a better mobility offering than DoBi because the user has a bike to use for an unlimited time. No worry of someone riding off on the bike you wanted to ride to your next stop.

  • planetshwoop

    Well, this:

    I mean, there will be good stuff too, which are a lot less likely to appear in Twitter.