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Dockless mobility: How to stop the wheels coming off

Dockless mobility services, where bikes and scooters can be parked almost anywhere rather than being constrained to designated points, are a fascinating example of good intentions hitting the real world, with sometimes unexpected results. While there’s a way to go, steps are being taken to calm the chaos.

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Bike-sharing, particularly dockless, could help cities reduce congestion, improve the environment and air quality and promote active living. The services can also provide useful insights into cycling and transport habits through collecting real-time data. Motorised dockless scooters are becoming increasingly popular too.

Dockless bike-sharing has already replaced an estimated 10% of car trips in Shenzhen, China, according to a new report from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), and in many cities worldwide it’s now far more common to see people cycling around thanks to these services.

However, we haven’t reached utopia on wheels just yet. Headline-hitting issues have also begun to arise, including bike clutter on the streets, thefts and vandalism, China’s ‘graveyards’ of abandoned bicycles, complaints about poor maintenance, safety risks, and more.

Making the rules

The dockless mobility business is highly competitive with a strong first-mover advantage and a business model based on scale. This often requires fast, aggressive marketing campaigns which don’t always chime with the way that cities typically do things, and we have seen a number of clashes recently.

For example, cities such as San Francisco, Nashville and Charlotte in the US recently issued cease and desist orders against scooter-sharing companies so that permitting rules could be worked out and adhered to.

In Australia, the cities of Melbourne, Port Phillip and Yarra imposed new rules on bike share operator oBike, and any future operators, to “improve safety and amenity” across the three municipalities. For example, bikes must not obstruct footpath access and any dangerously placed bikes must be relocated within two hours. “If oBike fails to comply with the MoU, compliance officers from the three municipalities can confiscate and impound oBikes,” the agreement states.

Others are imposing specifications on the technology. Singapore’s Land Transport Authority, for example, proposes to mandate that operators adopt geofencing technology.

Other cities say bikes must be capable of being locked to a bike rack and be equipped with a front light and reflectors.

Two-speed innovation

In April this year, the City of Austin in Texas launched an 18-month dockless bike share pilot project, with the aim of developing the policy and regulation required to manage these schemes.

They didn’t get that long in the end – within days, two companies (Lime and Bird Rides) launched dockless scooter services in the city.

The city responded in weeks with “emergency legislation” requiring dockless mobility providers to secure a licence from the city before launching operations. The licences will be granted for six months at a time, for now, and will limit each approved company to 500 dockless bikes or scooters. The rules also stipulate that dockless companies must have a complaint line.

Jason JonMichael, Assistant Director, Smart Mobility, City of Austin, said: “We’re in a very disruptive space and we have to find ways to create sustainable regulation that helps us manage these types of dockless mobility solutions as a whole. The polices are meant to be able to be sustainable into the future to be able to handle other dockless mobility solutions that may arise.”

Despite the teething troubles, JonMichael is keen to stress: “The City of Austin is very excited about the potential of dockless mobility, especially the bikes and the scooters, because they truly remove a single occupancy vehicle off the road. We see how it can really drive towards a safer and more environmentally friendly mobility ecosystem.

“However, we need to make sure that everyone can stay safe out there and that these companies are doing business responsibly.”

Collaboration

Although most are agreed that strong collaboration is required between public and private sector to make dockless mobility work, it isn’t always that easy to get on the same page.

“In the city of Austin we’re looking to pivot with technology and industry disruption, not against it,” JonMichael said.

Bike-sharing companies themselves say they want to work more closely with cities to ensure smooth operations for everyone. Bird, for example, published an open Save Our Streets (SOS) letter to fellow companies calling for them to agree to three pledges: daily pick-up, responsible growth and revenue sharing with the city.

Scott Kubly, Chief Program Officer, at Lime (formerly LimeBike), says regulation “makes sense” but argues that there is a “mismatch” between how the regulations are shaping up and cities’ stated policy goals, such as safety, promoting walking and biking, reducing climate impact, etc.

Capping the number of bike-sharing vehicles, but not private vehicles or services such as Uber or Lyft, and charging sometimes “exorbitant” licence fees of up to $200 per dockless vehicle “actually hurts every single one of those [goals]”, Kubly argues.

Kubly says Lime would like to see cities working with operators to “craft” regulations but he adds you can only do this after services launch.

“You can’t regulate something until you actually see it operate otherwise you’re kind of regulating from ignorance, Kubly says.

This highlights the delicate balance cities need to strike to get the right amount of regulation at the right time.

The ITDP recently warned: “Cities should understand that taking a wait-and-see approach is extremely risky, given the potential for poorly delivered service to degrade the image and potential that dockless bikeshare can offer.”

Changing behaviour

Ultimately, whatever cities’ best-laid plans are, it’s the riders who will make or break how well these services run and integrate into our lives.

Conor Wynn, PhD Candidate at BehaviourWorks, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, urges cities to collaborate with companies on policies based on human behaviour, “rather than whacking operators over the head with a fine”.

“Taking operators to court is a very blunt instrument,” he comments.

For example, he says: “The difficulty with some share-bike schemes is that while there are incentives and penalties for being pro-social they’re not obvious at the time that the behaviour happens.”

One option is for cities to map out their preferred parking points, such as near train stations or bus terminals, and unsuitable spaces like close to canals or rivers or on private property.

Operators can then send riders real-time messages warning them the place they appear to be parking is unsuitable and alerting them they will be fined via their account should they decide to park there anyway. Similarly, customers could get in-app rewards for leaving their bike in a preferred spot.

Another idea could be tapping into the idea of social norms and running a communications campaign aimed at reminding users that most others don’t dump their bikes when they’re finished with them. This could work in the same way that water-saving campaigns worked during the Millennium Drought in many parts of Australia, Wynn says, noting: “Those campaigns helped convince many consumers that it’s not OK to waste water. One way this was achieved was by showing each household how their consumption compared to others.”

Outcome thinking

Outcome-based approaches could also offer a way ahead.

Lime’s Kubly urges cities: “Mandate the outcome, not the hardware or technology, and let the private providers figure out how they’re going to deliver. Then hold people accountable for the outcome.”

The ITDPs recent report: Optimising dockless bike-share for cities offers the following suggestions for outcome-oriented, regulation:

• Integrate dockless bike-sharing into existing mobility and accessibility goals and adopt policies that compel operators to help achieve those goals in exchange for their use of public space. For example, Manchester in the UK has a goal that by 2025, 10 per cent of all journeys in Manchester will be made by bike.

• Establish operations objectives for dockless bike-share policies that: effectively manage public space; foster equity and accessibility; improve planning and enforcement; and protect users.

• Monitor operator compliance using data shared between each operator and trained government staff, and enforce policies through fines or other penalties when necessary.

• Evaluate and amend policies based on how well bikeshare contributes to city goals over time, using operator data and user feedback.

It’s clear that dockless bikes and scooters have a big part to play in future urban mobility, if the bumps in the road can be smoothed out before citizens vote with their cars.

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