Reflections on Dockless Bike-Share After Trying It Out in Washington, D.C.

DoBi is handy and fun to use, but it needs to be carefully regulated before it debuts in Chicago.

A rainbow of bike-share choices in the District. Photo: John Greenfield
A rainbow of bike-share choices in the District. Photo: John Greenfield

Last week I spent Thanksgiving in Washington D.C., one of the nation’s leading laboratories for dockless bike-share, aka DoBi. This new technology does away with expensive docking stations used by traditional bike-share systems like Chicago’s Divvy, and allows users to locate and unlock bikes with a cell phone app, and then leave them right at their destination.

Before the trip, I was already aware of some of the pros and cons of the dockless trend. On the plus side, the bikes are cheap to use – typically $1 for a half-hour ride. Unlike most docked networks, you don’t get penalized with ever-increasing late fees for keeping a cycle for more than the designated ride increment (30 minutes in Chicago), since each additional half hour is only another buck. Therefore, casual users don’t have to commit to a 24-hour pass, as is the case with Divvy, which charges $9.95 for a day pass. In addition, less planning is required, since you don’t need to locate a station to end you trip.

Poorly parked dockless bikes partially obstruct a sidewalk in D.C.
Poorly parked dockless bikes partially obstruct a sidewalk in D.C.

On the other hand, since the bikes are usually secured with a wheel lock and not attached to a fixed object, it’s possible to park them in ways that create hazards for pedestrians. As Twitter feeds like the Seattle-based Dockless Bike Fail hilariously illustrate, vandals and pranksters can also leave them hanging from signs or trees, or even throw them in bodies of water.

While the multitude of DoBi companies, many of them based in China, aren’t reliant on taxpayer dollars, like many traditional systems are, they’re propped up by millions or even billions of dollars in venture capital. Combined with the fact that the companies don’t have to install stations, this makes it easy for them to undercut public systems on pricing. Unlike Divvy, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare does sell single rides, but they cost $2 for 30 minutes, twice as much as a typical dockless ride.

Capital Bikeshare offers single-ride trisp, but they cost four times as much as DoBi. Photo: John Greenfield
Capital Bikeshare offers single-ride trips, but they cost twice as much as DoBi. Photo: John Greenfield

Similar to how ride-hailing companies have disrupted public transit and the taxi industry, it’s possible that DoBi could kill off successful docked systems and then have to jack up their rates, or even go out of business themselves, after the venture capital dries up. And, like Uber, some dockless companies have engaged in shady businesses practices, such as releasing fleets of bikes in cities and on college campuses where it’s not legal to do so, or dumping hundreds or thousands of cycles in cities without maintaining them, which has resulted in massive bike graveyards in some Chinese cities. And then there’s the CEO of the Chinese company BlueGoGo, who recently disappeared with millions of dollars in customer security deposits shortly before the business declared bankruptcy.

But I tried to keep an open mind as I checked out the different dockless systems in D.C., the first good-sized city with a flourishing traditional network to allow DoBi operators to set up shop. MoBike, LimeBike, Spin, Ofo, and Jump (which rents electrical-assist cycles) have each been permitted to release 400 cycles in the District, creating a rainbow of bike-share choices.

I downloaded all five of the apps, which was pretty straightforward even for a relative Luddite like myself. Locating the bikes was a little trickier, since the applications didn’t always accurately show the positions of the cycles, but it seemed like you could usually find a few “free-locked” vehicles near transit stations and along busy retail strips. Most of the D.C. dockless systems allow you to unlock a bike by using your smartphone to scan a QR code displayed on various places on the cycle.

The dockless bikes generally seemed more rickety than Divvy cycles, and I encountered a few broken ones. Photo: John Greenfield
The dockless bikes generally seemed more rickety than Divvy cycles, and I encountered a few broken ones. Photo: John Greenfield

I had a chance to check out MoBike, LimeBike, and Ofo cycles, which were a bit lighter than the steeds used in the Divvy, CaBi, and New York City’s Citi Bike docked systems, which are all run by the same company, Motivate. The DoBi bikes I tried also seemed to be a bit shoddier – in a few cases the headlights and baskets had become detached. The ride also wasn’t quite as smooth and stable as a Divvy, but I found the dockless bikes I tried to be reasonably comfortable and agile.

A real basket was handy for carrying a precious payload of pupusas. Photo: Tanya Schneider
A real basket was handy for carrying a precious payload of pupusas. Photo: Tanya Snyder

The fully functional front baskets on the dockless cycles are also a big improvement over the front racks of the Motivate bikes, which are really only designed for briefcases and purses, although you can squeeze a backpack into one. Having a real basket came in handy when I had to carry home a bag of pupusas after meeting up with former Streetsblog USA editor Tanya Snyder, now covering national transportation issues for Politico, and her kids at one of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood’s many Salvadoran restaurants.

Not having to worry about late fines while riding also makes a big difference in the rider experience. It’s a lot more relaxing to ride without constantly having to pay attention to the time, knowing that each additional 30 minutes will only cost another dollar.

Being able to leave your bike right at your destination is another huge perk – it’s always a little annoying when you have to walk a few minutes to or from Divvy stations. It’s also great that with dockless you aren’t confined to a service area defined by station locations. For example, the Thanksgiving morning Turkey Trot I ran in D.C.’s Crestwood community (my knees are still sore) took place outside of the CaBi zone, but taking DoBi to the starting line was an option.

Moreover, badly parked DoBi bikes seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. While I saw a few cycles lying on the ground or partially blocking the pedestrian right-of-way, most were standing on their kickstands on the parkway, often next to private bikes locked to racks. I didn’t encounter the type of bike parking fugazi regularly featured on Dockless Bike Fail.

A dockless bike fail in D.C.
A dockless bike fail in D.C. Photo: John Greenfield

So after experiencing DoBi firsthand, I’m convinced that the technology could be a positive addition to the Chicago bike scene, especially during an era in which future federal funding to expand the Divvy system to outlying neighborhoods may be hard to come by. But assuming that the city of Chicago eventually lets dockless providers do business here, it’s going to crucial to come up with and enforce rules and regulations on parking and maintenance, ensure that the bikes serve all neighborhoods, not just profitable high-demand areas, and take steps to make sure that DoBi doesn’t pull the rug out from under Divvy.

With that in mind, here’s a simple proposal. Chicago recently passed a new fee on ride-hailing trips, with the revenue earmarked for CTA infrastructure. How about taxing future dockless providers in our city and using that money to purchase more Divvy stations for neighborhoods that don’t have them yet?

  • Asher Of LA

    “take steps to make sure that DoBi doesn’t pull the rug out from under Divvy.

    With that in mind, here’s a simple proposal. Chicago recently passed a new fee on ride-hailing trips, with the revenue earmarked for CTA infrastructure. How about taxing future dockless providers in our city and using that money to purchase more Divvy stations for neighborhoods that don’t have them yet?”

    Does Divvy exist to move people, or do people exist to fund Divvy? Funding Divvy despite it being much costlier… taxing dockless to fund Divvy is a sure recipe for less access to bikes. A Capital dock costs about $50k, which buys 100+ dockless bikes.

    Lol and that ‘DoBi’ apellation is not going to take off…

  • planetshwoop

    Is it pronounced “dough-be” or “Doobie”?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The former.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    In some respects, you get what you pay for. Yes, traditional bike-share is more expensive, but in exchange you get higher-quality, more durable bikes that don’t block the pedestrian right-of-way, aren’t so easily stolen or vandalized, and are well maintained, and reasonably well “rebalanced.” The Divvy system also creates dozens, if not hundreds, of $12/hour-plus jobs, with many of the positions going to participants from job-training programs. You also don’t wind up with mountains of trashed bikes like Chinese cities have seen, which is a truly depressing sight.

    Charging, say, an extra nickel on a $1 half-hour dockless trip wouldn’t be a major deterrent to people using the bikes, but it could raise a significant amount of money to bring Divvy stations to neighborhoods that don’t currently have them. On the other hand, if we let the artificially low DoBi rates kill Divvy, and then the dockless companies fold when their business model turns out to be financially unsustainable (which is already starting to happen in China), that’s going to be a lose-lose situation. As I wrote, DoBi can be a good addition to the Chicago bike scene, but only if it’s rolled out in a responsible way.

    I didn’t coin the term DoBi, and it’s already taken off: https://www.google.com/search?ei=cVEeWuCsHcfk_QbnxqaACw&q=%22Dobi%22+bike+share&oq=%22Dobi%22+bike+share&gs_l=psy-ab.3..0i13k1j0i13i30k1.5000.6214.0.6734.6.6.0.0.0.0.173.591.5j1.6.0….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..0.6.590…35i39k1j0i13i10i30k1j33i160k1.0.LTmFaCzkEkE

  • Tooscrapps

    “…typically $1 for a half-hour ride. ”

    “D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare does sell single rides, but they cost $2 for 30 minutes, four times as much as a typical dockless ride.”

    Is there something I’m missing?

  • David Henri

    I agree John. We don’t want to kill Divvy now that it’s starting to really take hold. We need to expand it to neighborhoods that don’t have it yet.

  • As someone who uses Divvy for regular commutes, I don’t see how dockless bikeshare would be a benefit to me really. The fixed nature of the pick up point is critical.

  • Jeremy

    “it’s going to crucial to come up with and enforce rules and regulations”

    Ha! That isn’t exactly the Chicago way.

  • Tooscrapps

    The man benefit is not having to dock it. I live in E. Lakeview and I’ve had a few times were my local dock and the 4-5 closest ones were all full.

  • Toddster

    New York’s is Citi Bike, not City Bike.

  • Ben Tre

    Seems like the problem of bikes in trees, lakes, and roads could be solved with a hybrid system: dockless bikes that have a smartphone-activated cable lock, thus ensuring that every user needs to lock the bike to something secure when they are finished.

  • Asher Of LA

    Most people are not willing to pay 2-3 times as much for a bike that’s only marginally better, and still has the frustration of locating docks on both ends. That’s the critical element – dockless bikes will grow the use of bikeshare, through abundance if nothing else. Seattle now has 10 times as many bikes on a per capita basis than Citibike, and God knows NYC could use more bikeshare.

    The quality differences are not that great anyhow – I test-rode one docked and two dockless bikes recently – the dockless ones were a bit lighter, sportier, twitchier, and the docked heavier, smoother, more upright. The difference was more a matter of taste than anything else. The dockless bikes are comparable in quality to a decent entry-level bike from a bike shop (and are probably made by the same manufacturers, such as Battle FSD).

    >You also don’t wind up with mountains of trashed bikes like Chinese cities have seen, which is a truly depressing sight.

    That hasn’t happened much outside China. The firms can put down as many as they want in Seattle, and there are only about 1 per 100 people (8,000). Shanghai has 1 per 16 people, probably too many. Ofo and others put down super cheap (~$30) bikes, and that’s not happening here (where they’re ~$400). And the period of swamping city streets with yet more cheap bikes looks to be over even in China, as the industry consolidates.

    > dockless companies fold when their business model turns out to be financially unsustainable (which is already starting to happen in China)

    There were too many players. Now some of them are closing. It’s a bit like saying air travel may die because of a few spectacular airline bankruptcies :). Neither of us really know, but these firms have been able to get hundreds of millions in funding from some bright people, which augurs well.

  • Asher Of LA

    Fixed pick up points are actually a good idea in high traffic areas, and dockless bikes are already adopting them. [1]

    The advantage of dockless is that the docks used are very expensive. No docks means lower costs -> more bikes for the same buck ->more geographic coverage. You are fortunate enough to live in an area already covered.

    [1] http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/parking-zones-more-bicycle-racks-part-of-new-bike-sharing-pilot-8805582

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The Jump electrical-assist bikes do feature a built-in U lock for securing the cycle to a rack or pole. It might be a good idea for Chicago to require other DoBi providers to include this feature when they have new bikes manufactured. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3c30febe06f8f1825330bf61482b3a7002c1994fcaad84e2499c2c47a9d8d431.jpg

  • Asher Of LA

    JUMP is doing that with their dockless ebikes, with a u lock.

    I agree it’s a good solution, but apparently the other firms don’t think it’s necessary or worth it. A cable lock would be pretty easy though.

  • Asher Of LA

    Some dock systems allow you to daisy chain – which lets you park regardless, but increases the need for rebalancing.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Right, no docks means you can’t get “dock blocked,” which is a perk.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Too many players isn’t the only reason why DoBi may ultimately prove to be unsustainable. An issue with dockless bike-share, similar to what’s going on with ride-hailing, is that the rates are artificially low because the companies are being propped up by venture capital, similar to how Uber and Lyft are currently cheaper than taxis. It’s not clear that the dockless companies can make money in the long run charging $1 a trip. Can every $400 DoBi cycle pay for itself, let alone turn a profit for its company, at this rate when you also take into account maintenance, rebalancing, and administrative costs?

  • Do you really think these dockless bikes are going to end up in areas of low coverage? I don’t. I expect they will be crowded in areas where bikeshare is already popular.

  • Asher Of LA

    That’s a good question, and neither of us really know.

    But it’s certainly possible. They’re getting 2+ rides per day per bike in Seattle. I’ve heard a lifespan of 4 years bandied about. And there are lots of people paying less than $1 (promos, bulk/low-income discounts, etc), so let’s say $0.50 average fare. That gives us $1460 over four years (4 years * $0.50 per fare * 2 fares per day * 365 days per year). Is $1460 enough to cover acquisition, rebalancing, vandalism, maintenance, financing, etc? Possibly. Plus, they’re apt to get some sponsorship revenue.

    Also, they’re all about to roll out ebikes (say, by June 2018), which will have higher prices, (3x) longer trips, and probably higher utilization.

    And, Limebike has gotten multiple rounds of funding. They opened their books to investors and it was evidently promising enough to garner more investment.

  • Asher Of LA

    The model is to saturate the high ridership areas so that there will be plenty of bikes to go around. Looks like it’s working in Seattle.

    “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.”

    http://peopleforbikes.org/blog/seattles-private-bike-shares-affordable-make-equitable/

    Docked bikeshare is too costly to do that with the funds available.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    A four-year lifespan seems awfully optimistic for lower-quality bikes that are left free-locked on sidewalks and may not be receiving regular maintenance. And obviously it makes a huge difference to Seattle’s dockless ridership numbers that there’s currently no docked bike-share to compete with DoBi.

  • Jeremy

    These bikes would take up parking spaces that can be used by people who are using their personal bikes. Would the city install more bike racks? Maybe the city could require the DoBi operators to install branded racks with advertising?

  • Cameron Puetz

    That’s how Duetsche Bahn’s Call a Bike system works.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Call_a_Bike

  • Asher Of LA

    What is your basis for saying these bikes are low quality?

    Limebike’s and ofo’s are made by the same manufacturer as Trek and Specialized.

  • Asher Of LA

    Use parking revenue and spaces for more bike racks :)

    It could free up rack spaces if existing cyclists switch. But I think dockless will help both segments grow.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I said *lower* quality (than Motivate bikes.) This is based on riding them, viewing damaged ones on the street, reading numerous articles, and talking with cyclists in DoBi cities.

    For example, former Streetsblog staffer Payton Chung, now living in D.C., says, “Spin is my least favorite of the DoBis to ride. They’re exceptionally fragile-feeling, and it seems like the fleet is rife with mechanical problems. They have at least two models of bikes on the street here (1- and 3-speed). Like most of the bike geeks, the only one I look forward to riding is Jump. The others are similar, but Ofo is the least-bad of them: The riding posture is less forced, and there’s a lock override (remote unlocking systems frequently don’t work.) The other day I tried four MoBikes in the rain before one of them unlocked.”

  • Toddster

    It’s New York City, not New York Citi. :-)

  • Jacob Wilson

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If it’s good tech we should have Divvy roll it out themselves. Venture capital businesses are almost always bad news. See Uber.

  • Jeremy

    I will bet Rahm will want VC to fund his O’Hare express train.

  • How badly will the lakefront and riverwalk be littered with these things?

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