Active Trans Cofounder Randy Neufeld Weighs in on the Dockless Bike-Share Debate

He argues that the technology should be confined to bike libraries and stations on private property

Randy Neufeld
Randy Neufeld

The dockless bike-share trend continues to pick up speed in cities around the country. This new technology allows customers to use a smartphone app to locate and check out bikes distributed around a city, then lock them up right at their destination, with no need for the rental company to invest in pricey docking stations.

Some argue that dockless bike-share, aka DoBi is the wave of the future that Chicago should embrace, or else our city will no longer be a national leader in promoting cycling. They note that the cheap price of renting the bikes, usually $1 per half-hour compared to $9.95 for a Divvy day pass, and the convenience of not having to end a trip at a station, can help attract more people to urban cycling

Others point out that DoBi cycles are generally lower quality than traditional bike-share vehicles, and good maintenance of the bikes isn’t guaranteed. They’re typically left “free-locked” on the sidewalk, so it’s possible for them to pose a pedestrian hazard, and they’re easy to steal or vandalize. Moreover, there are signs that the Chinese dockless industry is hitting a major speed bump.

One person who’s uniquely qualified to weigh in on the subject is Randy Neufeld, who helped found the Active Transportation Alliance more than 30 years ago, served as its director for many years, and currently heads the SRAM Cycling Fund, which provides grants for bike projects around the world. He shared his thoughts on what Chicago should do about regulating dockless bike-share companies, who have recently been courting the city.

“I don’t buy that dockless systems are cheaper [to run] than docked systems,” Neufeld says. “They are cheaper if you use crap bikes and don’t rebalance and maintain the bikes,” he says. “It’s true that you don’t need a dock but with [electrical-assist bike] systems, the dock may be cheaper than figuring out another way to charge free-floating bikes. Managing the helter-skelter bikes has a cost. Putting the brains on each bike has a cost as well. Rebalancing is essential to a good system, and the dockless technology only marginally helps.”

A Jump electrical-assist DoBi bike spotted by the Chicaog Department of Transportation offices last week. Photo: Kevin Zolkiewicz
A Jump electrical-assist DoBi bike spotted by the Chicago Department of Transportation offices last week. Photo: Kevin Zolkiewicz

Neufeld notes that all of the early European public bike systems, such as Amsterdam’s 1960s-era white bicycles program, were dockless, but they weren’t sustainable due to issues of street clutter, theft and vandalism. (Notably, Amsterdam has banned modern DoBi technology.) “Docks evolved to solve the problems of security, reliability and clutter with dockless systems,” he says. “Mostly it was security. I don’t know why people like to throw bikes in canals, but it is still a big problem. It was the solving of those problems that caused bikeshare to really take off starting with Velib in Lyon, France, in 2007.” Neufeld argues that many of the shortcomings of the original dockless bikes still exist with DoBi, only slightly mitigated by the new technology. “Remember that the current dockless rage hasn’t been around long enough to judge it’s success.”

However, Neufeld acknowledged that there are some advantages of dockless bike-share vehicle. “So the future is hybrid systems with smart bikes with dock-like order and security in dense city centers, and semi-free-floating but controlled parking in less dense areas where there is more space.” He noted that Portland, Oregon’s, Biketown systems system includes stations, but it also allows customers to secure the bikes to regular bike racks via built in locks, for a small additional fee. “We will continue to see amazing innovation and evolution in the bike-share space in the next years and systems will mix and match docks, dockless, memberships, apps, different bike styles, adaptive cycles, short-term use, long-term use, fleets, cargo bikes and more.”

Neufeld adds that he doesn’t feel it makes sense for Chicago to let DoBi providers have free range on the public right-of-way (although he’s OK with letting them operate from stations on private property, such as parking lots, or leased public space.) However, he feels the technology has the potential to increase equity by bringing shared bikes to neighborhoods that don’t currently have them. Slow Roll Chicago cofounder Oboi Reed’s new mobility justice organization Equiticity has been in talks with the Chinese dockless company Ofo and the San Francisco-based electrical-assist DoBi company Jump Mobility about setting up “bike libraries” for residents of the Riverdale and North Lawndale communities, respectively. Both companies have already delivered some bikes to community organizations in these areas.

One of 14 Ofo bikes recently delivered for We Keep You Rollin’s “bike library” in Riverdale. Photo: We Keep You Rollin’
One of 14 Ofo bikes recently delivered for We Keep You Rollin’s “bike library” in Riverdale. Photo: We Keep You Rollin’

“Dockless bike libraries would be cool,” Neufeld says. “They could fulfill an important market of longer bike rentals that would better serve neighborhood bike use, especially in undeserved neighborhoods where having a bike for a day or a few hours would better meet mobility needs. If you’re going to take a bike-share bike from Altgeld Gardens [in Riverdale] to the Walmart at Doty Road around 110th, it would be a real bummer if someone else rented the bike while you were in the store.” Jump offers a “hold” option that allows you to keep a bike locked up at your destination for up to four hours so that it will still be there when you’re ready to leave.

Neufeld says he’d support having “bike library districts” where cycles with built-in locks could be returned to designated racks on the public way spread throughout outlying communities like Riverdale, North Lawndale, and Pullman.  “In order to operate there, the vendor would need to demonstrate that rentals would be geo-fenced to begin and end only in that neighborhood,” he says. “The bikes could leave the neighborhood but not be left outside the neighborhood.  Just like a rental car or a Zipcar, the vehicle would be the responsibility of the renter when in use no matter where it is. Dockless vendors should also be allowed to run bike rental operations using their technology at unstaffed stations on private property or leased public space anywhere in the city.”

Neufeld emphasizes that smart policies will be essential for Chicago to achieve a docked-plus-dockless future that best meets the city’s mobility and equity needs. This includes ensuring that DoBi companies offering artificially cheap rides, propped up by venture capital, don’t wind up undercutting and killing off the successful Divvy network.

“The answer is policy,” Neufeld says. “The important distinction in bike-share is public and private.” He cites Sacramento, California’s, upcoming dockless electrical-assist bike-share program, which is being run by Jump, as an example of a publicly subsidized network with rebalancing performance measures included the contract, which could help offset some of the potential downsides of dockless. “Public systems are subsidized by the public in exchange for a service that meets mobility goals, while private systems are subsidized by investors in exchange for future profits… It’s OK to protect the public investment and quality of public systems like Divvy from unsustainable predatory competition, just as we protect public transit from private jitney vans.”

Moreover, he warns, fiascos like the implosion on the Chinese DoBi company BlueGoGo, whose owner temporarily disappeared with millions of yuan in customer security deposits, may indicate that the current dockless model isn’t long for this world. “The foolish venture capital subsidy of dockless systems will collapse soon,” he predicts. “We can’t let something as wonderful as Divvy be a victim.”

“Again, right now the best way to manage the venture capital-fueled frenzy, which will be short-lived, is to control where [DoBi companies] can transact on the public right-of-way, focusing them on bike libraries in specific neighborhoods, and stations they establish on private property,” Neufeld concludes. “They might even discover a [new] business model.”

  • Asher Of LA

    lol so many half-truths, so little time…

    *Zagster is converting its municipal docked bikes to ‘locking dockless’ after ridership increased 7-8x in a trial.
    *Dockless bikeshare in China does 2.5x the rides their Uber/Lyft does. But we don’t want that…
    *Germany has had dockless bikes for nearly two decades [1]
    *Venture capital funds legacy bikeshare as well as dockless, like Zagster and Social Bicycle (which does Biketown)
    *If you have to pay three times as much to lock it outside a dock, as with SoBi bikes, then it’s not really dockless.
    *Chinese dockless isn’t going bust, it’s consolidating.

    Bikeshare should be at least as accessible as cars. So until cars are penned up in one garage per square mile, prescribing that bikeshares be kept off the street is silly and counterproductive.

    Fundamentally, it seems like Neufeld doesn’t understand the ‘access economy’ i.e. commercialized sharing. It’s like someone complaining that a shared car uses up street space to funnel profits to a private company, while their car is entitled to its own space (this happens in SF). A company makes a bit of profit, but more importantly, more access enables greater mobility, savings and emissions reductions.

    [1] https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2007/07/18/bike-sharing-in-berlin/

  • rwy

    A lot of people and places are far away from the divvy docks. A lot of these places don’t have good public transportation. One of the advantages of bikes is that they provide point to point transportation. I don’t see a problem with dockless bike share replacing divvy.

  • Jeremy

    “just as we protect public transit from private jitney vans.”

    Is Chicago protecting public transit from Lyft & Uber? It seems like Lyft & Uber drivers are using bus stops in the Loop for pickups and dropoffs at the expense of convenient CTA service. Are the fees Lyft & Uber pay making up for poorer, slower bus service?

  • sam K

    The shared car vs. private car thing is a very good straw man, but no one is complaining that dockless bike riders are going to clog up bike lanes. The issue is storing commercial bicycles on a public sidewalk. Restaurants need permits to open up sidewalk cafes; hot dog carts must pay to conduct their business on sidewalks. Why should dockless bikes be different? Each is exploiting public sidewalk space for private profit–and taking away space from everyone else in the process.

    While you’re at it, can you give us your dockless bikeshare lobbyist’s perspective on the rebalancing issue? Seems like it could be a real problem.

  • Michelle Stenzel

    Randy makes excellent points, of course. However, I’d argue that people fearful of Divvy losing out are not considering that the low cost of entry to participating in dockless rides at $1 per ride may bring thousands of new bike riders into the market, so Divvy’s slice might be less, but of a considerably bigger pie.

    The concerns about the quality of the DoBi bikes, their level of maintenance, their availability – why not let the market decide this, since these are private enterprises? The low cost of entry lets the consumer easily test each DoBi system and quickly vote with their apps as to which one has the winning combination of quality. Who knows, maybe after spending a few bucks testing the DoBi systems, brand new bike share riders will ultimately choose the advantages of the Divvy system, with its quality maintenance and rebalancing feature.

    I also have trouble accepting the argument that private companies should not be allowed “free rein of the public ROW” (when DoBi users park their bikes on sidewalks), given that motor vehicles driven by private-company employees are allowed use of curbside public ROW space throughout the entire city. A produce delivery truck parked at a loading zone is “taking away” space from the public. Don’t forget about all the cars driven by employees of (private, for-profit) pharmaceutical companies, real estate agencies, home health care companies, etc who use parking spaces to make sales calls or patient visits while making profits and taking away space from the public. At some point, we see that the activity of the private company’s driver is adding value to the quality of life of the public, and we allow the use. Maybe we can recognize that the value of private DoBi systems are that they’re bringing another transportation option to citizens, so an allowance to use the public ROW space is also worthwhile.

    If the concern about DoBi bikes on the sidewalks is that they’re taking space away from pedestrians, then let’s solve the problem by dedicating more curbside STREET space to bike parking, instead of pitting pedestrians and bicyclists against each other on the sidewalks. If DoBi systems “grow the pie” by bringing in thousands more bike riders, then I would expect there’d be more support for that from everyone, including from non-bicyclists.

    Not unrelated: Earlier this week, we passed the nine-year anniversary of the approval of the parking meter lease deal. Only 66 more years to go! :

  • Asher Of LA

    unpaid bike lobbyist :).

    I love the conflicting accusations:
    “Private profiteering!”
    “VC outfits that don’t even turn a profit!”

    Considering the median price of car and bike parking is zero in American cities, I’d be happy to extend the same price to bikes :).

    Seattle has prescribed that bikes be placed in the ‘street furniture’ zone. That’s not really a place you can walk for long anyway. But if you want more barriers to city cycling, go ahead…

  • sam K

    I appreciate your perspective because I haven’t fully formed my opinion on dockless bikes.

    But Seattle says dockless bikes have to be parked in street furniture zones? So the street furniture zone becomes the de facto dock? That seems to negate most of the benefits of dockless bikes, no? How’s that better than Divvy or something?

  • Asher Of LA

    Because smart docks cost a lot, $3k+ per bike. And you need more than 1 docking space per bike.

    That said, newer bikeshares like SoBi and Zagster use dumb docks that don’t cost nearly as much, because all the tech is on the bike.

    Also, there’s a good chance docks in some form will remain
    *Having a fixed location for people to put bikes makes sense in high traffic areas. Say one bike corral per 250 ft block face. You don’t have to go on a scavenger hunt to get a ride home. But these docks are more frequent, and have no tech – just glorified stakes in the ground.
    *E-bikeshare may be optimal with docks. Maybe not. But we could see docks repurposed for that use. Or adapt public EV chargers for that.

    City bikeshares put out low numbers of bikes because the docks are pricey, and then rebalance constantly to ensure access to them. Dockless firms put out lots of bikes because they’re not buying docks, and the bikes are cheaper (opinions vary, but my brief personal experience found them to be fine rides). By saturating the area with bikes, they don’t need to rebalance as much, while also (theoretically) increasing the bike-prospective rider proximity.

    Relatedly, the ‘bike rides per day’ metric used with previous bikeshares is not critical, because the bikeshares are no longer defined by scarcity, but abundance. The absolute number of rides is the measure of success.

    [1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/capital-bikeshare-gears-up-for-another-expansion/2017/10/02/bcf81b4a-a2fe-11e7-ade1-76d061d56efa_story.html?utm_term=.e10928021e32

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “Is Chicago protecting public transit from Lyft & Uber?” As you probably know, there’s the new ride-share fee that will be earmarked for transit infrastructure: https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/emanuel-budget-ride-share-fee-hike-uber-lyft-cta/Content?oid=32990291

  • Andrew

    Broader picture here: we should be fighting to get as many people as possible on bikes, whether rich or poor, young or old, tourist or local. Divvy is a great first step, but we need to do more (especially with regard to its pricing). Unleashing a flood of new bikes on the city with a very low financial barrier to entry (only $1) is a no-brainer in my book.

  • Greg

    On a recent visit to South Bend, Indiana I enjoyed a peak into their LimeBike experiment.
    Hot. Mess.

    Dock-Life till the world blow!

  • rwy

    Can’t the dockless bike be moved a couple of feet?

  • sam K

    Uh, where? Somewhere else on the sidewalk?

  • Randy Neufeld

    Michelle, you’re right that there are major flaws plus one disaster in the way we regulate and price public space. But let’s not make more bad decisions. It’s pretty exciting thinking about the potential of $1 a ride anytime you want to bike somewhere. If it seems too good to be true, there may be a catch. I think the business model is investor cash and user deposits. This will play out over the next 12 to 24 months. Advocates and the city need to think through what remains after the investors realize they have been played. For now when the dockless companies come calling, I think we should point them to new markets like bike libraries and the vast portions of our city and region, unserved by bikeshare. That said we shouldn’t ignore the potential of lower cost and app-based bike share. This disruption will allow Chicago to negotiate something cool and hopefully sustainable.

  • rwy

    A parking space

  • Sterling Archer

    Anybody who’s ridden a DoBi bike have comments on their quality and how well they are maintained? That picture of piles and piles of bikes in China seems worrisome.

    While it does suck to get a bum Divvy they are well made on the whole being made in North America (Canada) by a well regarded bike manufacturer (Cycles Devinci).

  • forensicgarlic

    divvy’s pricing is a problem. and other docked systems aren’t priced the same. Montreal has a one way rental that cost less than a bus fair, and a 3 day rental for a long weekend.

  • forensicgarlic

    don’t the dockless systems also have an issue with the unbanked? Have I missed how that’s being addressed?

  • Andrew

    In the US, we price our bike share programs significantly higher than in the rest of the world. In European cities, you can get an entire day pass for +/- $2. That’s about half the cost of a single ride in the US cities that offer them (most US bike share cities don’t offer a single ride).

    If dockless bikes introduce competition in the market and force existing docked bikes to reform their pricing structure, I think that would be a great step forward. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/03316581d03039405ce1b2ca952e99b38ec8fe0706b206a706a085ed88237e67.jpg

    chart credit: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/feb/25/best-and-worst-city-cycle-schemes-bike-sharing-london

  • Michelle Stenzel

    I know that at least one system (Spin in Seattle) has an option for using the system with cash payments, as well as giving 50% discounts for low income people, so hopefully more of the providers will do this as well.

  • You really think these bikes are going to stay in Englewood? I just don’t see it.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Question/Musing: $1 per (short) DoBi ride may seem like a bargain. But wait a second: spread that cost over a year — for someone who (as everyone on this thread would like to see) really likes to ride / is riding more than now / rides a lot. The average annual cost of using DoBi bikes for an LMI citizen — just to keep the equity issue front and center — who is traveling pretty much in a ‘normal’ manner for Chicago, may very well end up being MUCH MORE than the cost of an annual Divvy membership. The question is: how many rides do we anticipate most folks making in the course of a year? Also, no one here is talking about the need to have a mobile phone to use (most) DoBi systems …

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I haven’t heard about any DoBi companies offering annual memberships in the U.S. If none of them are, yes, a Divvy membership would be a better deal for many people than paying per ride on dockless. And then there’s the $5 Divvy for Everyone memberships available for residents who make less than $31K a year. Of course, a bike-share membership is a lot less useful if you can’t check out cycles in your neighborhood. Some of the DoBi companies do offer subsidized rides for low-income folks, and allow people to check out a bike via a RIFD card or a pass code.

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