Released Emails Reveal CDOT’s Thoughts on Pros and Cons of Dockless Bike-Share

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

Currently the city of Chicago is trying to decide if and how they should allow dockless bike-share (DoBi) providers to set up shop here. At November’s Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council meeting, deputy Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Sean Wiedel said the agency had recently met with representatives of Spin, a San Francisco-based dockless company, to discuss permitting issues, and that the company had 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 said. Meanwhile, the Beijing-based DoBi company Ofo, and SF-based electrical-assist dockless bike-share firm Jump have delivered cycles to start “bike libraries” in the North Lawndale neighborhood and the Riverdale community (which includes Altgeld Gardens, Golden Gate and other enclaves.)

As the debate over whether we should roll out the red carpet for dockless technology heated up, I recently submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for CDOT emails regarding DoBi, in order to shed some light on the department’s decision process. The correspondence that the agency provided suggests that they’re looking at the issue with eyes wide open and proceeding with caution.

Dockless bike-share lets customers use a smartphone app to locate and check out bikes distributed around a city, and then lock them up right at their destination, with no need for the rental company to invest in expensive docking stations. 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 potentially attract more people to urban cycling. The flexibility of DoBi also makes it a possible solution for bringing shared bikes to outlying neighborhoods that don’t have Divvy stations in an era when federal funding for bike infrastructure may become scarce.

Staff from the Riverdale-based bike group We Keep You Rollin', Ofo, and the Shared Use Mobility Center with one of the bike library cycles. Photo: We Keep You Rollin'.
Staff from the Riverdale-based bike group We Keep You Rollin’, Ofo, and the Shared Use Mobility Center with one of the bike library cycles. Photo: We Keep You Rollin’.

However, many of the CDOT emails involve cautionary tales about the potential pitfalls of dockless, and examples of shady behavior by DoBi operators. For example, an early September memo from department spokesman Mike Claffey to staffers who oversee the Divvy program shares a September 2 New York Times article about how the technology has caused problems in Chinese cities, including blocked sidewalks, bike theft, and vandalism, such as bikes being hung from trees, buried in construction sites and thrown in rivers and lakes.

“Funny read on chaos in China caused by dockless bike share, where there are 16 million (!!!) shared bikes!” Claffey writes. “Talk about a glut!” He notes that the article mentions a cease-and-desist order that New York City transportation officials issued this summer to Spin, the company CDOT has been in talks with, to halt Spin’s plans for an un-permitted demonstration project in Queens.

Another email from the FOIA response includes correspondence from city of San Francisco transportation planner Heath Maddox outlining how Spin illegally launched an un-permitted pilot program in SF earlier this year, despite a letter the city had sent to dockless operators informing them that permits were required. After the illegal fleet was highlighted in the local press, “Spin offered to ‘smooth things over’ by pulling their bikes and focusing on their permit application,” Maddox wrote, characterizing the company’s previous behavior as “disrespectful to the city.”

Charleston, South Carolina, transportation director Keith Benjamin and Oboi Reed from Equiticity and Slow Roll Chicago, test ride Jump bikes in Chicago. Photo: Keith Benjamin
Charleston, South Carolina, transportation director Keith Benjamin and Oboi Reed from Equiticity and Slow Roll Chicago, test ride Jump bikes in Chicago. Photo: Keith Benjamin

Maddox added that before Spin took their bikes off the street, he downloaded their app and tried one out himself. He noted that, of the eight dockless bikes at the rack where he got his cycle, one was missing a wheel, one’s rack and solar panel had been ripped off, and a third had its “flimsy headlight hanging from its exposed wiring.” He added that Spin’s behavior seemed to be a case of a North American Bike Share Association member violating the NABSA code of conduct, and argued that NABSA should develop minimum bike-share equipment standards.

Interestingly, another article circulated among CDOT staffers was a Spin blog post from August calling out other companies for the same tactics. “Recently, we’ve seen rogue (often foreign) companies attempt covert deployments in Miami and San Diego, and engaging in behavior that is disruptive to local communities,” the post stated. The linked articles refer to cycles from SF-based LimeBike illegally showing up on the streets of Miami Beach, and Ofo’s un-permitted launch of a fleet on the University of California at San Diego campus. “As proud members of the the North American Bikeshare Asocciation(NABSA), we call on all bikeshare companies, station or stationless, foreign or local, to subscribe to these same core values,” the Spin post stated.

In another an October email from the CDOT FOIA response, Divvy deputy general manager Michael Critzon discussed how Transit App, which includes info on various modes of transportation, including traditional bike-share, was adding dockless bike locations to the platform. “Kind of a bummer,” Critzon wrote.

Wiedel by a Divvy station. Photo: Shared Use Mobility Center
Wiedel by a Divvy station. Photo: Shared Use Mobility Center

Similarly, in an October 18 email exchange between Wiedel and Luc Sabbatini, CEO of Montreal-based PSBS Urban Solutions, which manufactures the bikes used by Divvy and other many other docked systems around the country, the men express their displeasure with a recent Forbes article titled “Chicago, Once a Bikeshare Innovator, Squeamish About the Next Level.” The piece, by local journalist Jeff McMahon, argued that the city is being overly timid about adopting DoBi, stating that “Chicago’s heavy bikes and anchored docks seem old-fangled” while dockless cycles are “state of the art.”

Sabbatini writes that he’s “really surprised at all the lobbying the dockless folks seem to deliver everywhere… nobody talks about secure bike/quality of bike/issues with their app/bikes left all over the place and vandalism.” Wiedel replies, “Agree that it’s overblown. [The companies are] all working with lobbyists to get out the message they want, accurate or not.”

Sabbatini also sent Wiedel an article from China Money that he said makes it clear that the dockless model isn’t sustainable, since venture capital is necessary to maintain the low rental prices. “Mobike currently does not have a clear method to monetize, and we are relying on investors’ money,” Wang Xiaofeng, CEO at Mobike told reporters, according to the China Money piece. “To attract customers, bike sharing companies charge very low rental fees… We will aim to gain market share as much as possible first, and then discuss how to become profitable.”

The FOIA response also includes September correspondence between Wiedel and Spin employees, setting up the late September meeting. Spin’s government relations manager Anthony Desnick tells Wiedel the company wants to work with CDOT “to bring station-free bike-share to Chicago.”

In addition, CDOT provided a September 27 email from 1st Ward staffer Jerry Mondujano to Wiedel informing him that Alderman Joe Moreno recently met with Spin head of marketing James Moore to discuss a possible rollout of DoBi in the ward, which includes parts of bike-friendly Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square.

There’s also an email from Alex Wilson, director of the Humboldt Park-based bike education center West Town Bikes, notifying Wiedel that West Town is in talks with Spin about potentially contracting with the company to maintain a future Chicago DoBi fleet. “I’m interested in seeing if a youth training program can be leveraged as well,” Wilson writes. “I’d appreciate any insights you may have.”

So the FOIA response suggests that CDOT is carefully considering all the possible benefits and drawbacks of dockless bike-share launching in Chicago, although some DoBi proponents would argue that city officials are being overly cautious. You can make your voice heard on the subject at the upcoming Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting this Wednesday, December 13, 3-4:30 p.m. at City Hall, 121 North LaSalle, Room 1103.

  • Asher Of LA

    Great idea to pull the emails.

    For many city officials, minimizing resident complaints is a top concern, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at their caution, given the potential for things to go awry.

    Two key differences between dockless here vs China.
    1. Highly subsidized fares, on a scale far greater than here. In the US, the free rides tend to taper off. The absolute cost is also higher, at a $1 per ride vs $0.10-20 in China.
    2. Some Chinese firms had deployed ~$30 bikes in China, while the ones here are $300-500. Higher cost means blanketing the city with excess bikes isn’t as profitable. This is probably why Seattle has stabilized at 7-8k bikes, despite the absence of a cap.

    Further, there’s no indication that Seattle dockless bikes are any less used than typical legacy American bikeshares. Each bike is used 2.56 times per day, vs around 1 for Portland, despite being further north and having several times as many bikes per capita.


    $30 bike:

  • The more I read about this, the more I think the City should be very cautious about this. Seems like a great way to sour people on bike share altogether. I also think the idea that these bikes will promote bike equity is total fantasy.

  • Carter O’Brien

    John’s column sharing Randy Neufeld’s thoughts was insightful. I can certainly see issues with this in the Loop, but Chicago isn’t likely to have a one-size-fits-all solution. If dockless can help in areas underserved by Divvy, what’s wrong with that?

  • It wouldn’t hurt to learn from others mistakes rather then making them ourselves as a city. The venture capital element is a concern. What if we get these bikes…they consume market share, slow down Divvy expansion, then go bust because they can’t find a way to monetize it to the investors satisfaction?

    Also…the bikes look lighter, easier to ride but easier to damage, pros and cons…..

  • Kevin M

    Will someone please explain how DoBi can help areas of the city that are under-served by Divvy, and, *most importantly*, how likely that is to happen on a consistent, long-term basis? Are DoBi bikes going to be re-balanced to keep serving these under-served neighborhoods? If this is just a flakey spin to promote DoBi, c’mon, people, lets stop buying and spreading this DoPe.

  • Asher Of LA

    From a dollars and cents perspective, think of the city as farmland. You only farm the land where you can get more in produce than you’d have to spend in labor and materials. So if you can either increase your yield or decrease your costs, you can farm more land.

    Dockless bikeshare aims to do both – by forgoing docks that are $3-4k per bike in DC (although much lower I believe for smartbike systems like Social Bicycle, which have geofenced dumb docks), and also using bikes that are a bit cheaper (volume discounts help, say, for the big players ofo and Mobike). So now they can ‘farm’ more of the city, by putting out more bikes. Without costly docks, your bike doesn’t need as many rides to cover its costs. Sure, they’ll saturate the high ridership areas, but the lower their marginal costs, the more of the city they can cover sustainably.

    Dockless can also increase demand, by being more convenient and letting you park at your destination.

  • I don’t think these bikes will stay in underserved communities. I have the feeling the profit-seeking dockless companies are just using bike equity as a cudgel to break in to the market.

  • Kevin M

    With all due respect, Asher, you did not answer my question. How will DoBi consistently provide coverage to areas of the city that are under-served by Divvy?

    Frankly, your lack of response to my question makes me even more skeptical of this so-called virtue of equity that *some people* DoBi will offer. I’m not buying it, and no honest person should unless this can actually be rationally and directly explained.

  • Asher Of LA

    lol it sounds like you’ve already determined your conclusion.

    One example from Seattle. I don’t understand why you’d hold dockless bikes to a standard that you don’t to Divvy.

    “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.

    They dropped the bikes in or around the center city and downtown. The bikes just kind of went where they were going to go. They started collecting around light rail lines; people are clearly using them to get home. The major business districts in the Rainier Valley are sort of an awkward distance from transit sites. You can walk that for sure but it’s faster to bike it. It’s cool to see where this might be successful.

    There is also a huge amount of use in the Industrial District, SoDo. There’s almost no homes and the bike lanes are horrible, but there are a bunch of jobs there. Of course it would be used to get there — here’s this new, convenient, and cheap option.”

  • Carter O’Brien

    That’s what private companies want to do, no doubt. But assuming this is more or less inevitable, I see no reason why we shouldn’t leverage that to balance out shared bike access. And you may not be correct that the bikes won’t stay in underserved communities, as that seems at odds with the entire concept. If the communities weren’t underserved they would simply be using bikes already available. We won’t know until we try it. What we know is that we’re currently doing what isn’t meeting those needs, so if not dockless bike share, what should we do and do you propose getting it done?

  • 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? I.e. how much will one year of DoBi participation/use cost them? Also, no one here is talking
    about the need to have a mobile phone to use (most) DoBi systems …

  • Michelle Stenzel

    I’m trying to understand what financial risk there is to the DoBi user. If the provider goes belly up, there’s no unused annual membership that goes unrefunded. Do the DoBi providers charge a security deposit like $100 or something the first time you use a bike and keep the funds for a period of time? Or do they just check to make sure your credit/debit card is good for $100 before each ride, without charging? John, since you tried out a few systems in DC, maybe you’d have insight.

  • Kevin M

    Are DoBi bikes re-balanced, like Divvy? If not, how can they be assured to return to neighborhoods that are under-served by Divvy if people use ride them from those neighborhoods to other neighborhoods?

  • Asher Of LA

    They are rebalanced. How much, and compared to legacy bikeshare, it’s not clear.

    Whatever the answer, it’s less of a concern with dockless bikes, because they put so many more bikes down. Seattle for instance already has ~9x as many per capita as NYC’s Citibike. If someone is commuting both ways on these bikes, then the bikes won’t accumulate in high ridership areas necessarily. If the company’s costs are low enough, a bike doing 2 rides a day may be enough, or they simply make their profits on the bikes doing 3+ rides a day.

    The bigger problem for either bikeshare is trips that trend in one direction, like downhill vs uphill. They are rebalancing from downhills in Seattle frequently, I’m told.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The companies generally charge a refundable deposit of about $50-100 when you sign up. check out the MoBike FAQs for an example:

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Seattle has about 700K people and 6,000 bikes; Chicago has about 2.7M people and 6,000 bikes; NYC has about 8.5M people and 12,000 bikes. Seattle has roughly 4 times as many bikes per person as Chicago, and about 6 times as many per person as NYC.

  • Asher Of LA

    Seattle has more like 8,000, Citibike 10,000. Dockless firms will probably put out more in the spring and leave them out throughout the year, so I’d expect the steady state number to go up, assuming the finances pan out.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Hmm, I believe those are different numbers than the last time I asked the companies. If that’s accurate, Seattle has roughly 5 times as many bikes per person as Chicago, and about 8 times as many per person as NYC.

  • Asher Of LA

    Not quite. Spin and Limebike don’t charge deposits. Doesn’t look like ofo does either. Mobike has the smallest footprint of the four, stateside.