Dockless bikes save environment — or junk up scenery?

 In June 2018

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By Page Leggett

They’re scattered all over some of the state’s biggest metro areas and on college campuses, lined up neatly or overturned in a heap.

Dockless bikes — the kind you can hop on, take for a spin and deposit literally anywhere — have invaded, on a noble mission to help ease traffic congestion, reduce fuel consumption and decrease greenhouse gases that scientists say are contributing to global warming.

“The benefits are huge,” says Sidney McLaurin, the Durham-based regional manager for bike-sharing company Lime. “We’re helping reduce the number of small trips people make by car, which is in turn reducing carbon emissions and [improving] public health.” The San Mateo, Calif.-based company, which recently shortened its name from LimeBike with the rollout of electric scooters in some cities, is one of 600 global bike-share companies in a market that could reach $5.8 billion by 2020. Lime’s bikes are available in Charlotte, Durham and Greensboro and on a half-dozen N.C. college campuses.

Renting a dockless bike is almost as easy as riding one. Lime’s app can be downloaded on a smartphone in less than five minutes. A QR code opens the GPS-enabled lock on the bike; riders close the lock when reaching their destinations. “[The app] knows you’re done with your trip and bills you,” McLaurin says. Lime charges $1 per half-hour; students get a discounted rate of 50 cents. Texts and in-app notifications remind users to lock the bike when finished. The app also includes a map that identifies locations of available bikes.

The bikes can help solve a common problem facing commuters when they step off the bus or train but still need to travel a short distance to reach their destinations. “Usually, the person who uses one of our bikes is making a trip of less than 2 miles,” McLaurin says. “It’s less about the bike than about being a convenient mode of transportation.”

Even so, Lime already has converted many non-cyclists into occasional riders. “We’re seeing bikes ridden to and from bus stops, which tells us bike share is helping people with their first mile-last mile connections,” says Suzanne Williams, associate director of campus access and travel demand at UNC Greensboro, which launched Lime’s service in June 2017 with 135 bikes. “We’ve also noticed small groups of students riding with friends during weekends, just for fun.”

Though some people had concerns that bikes might clutter sidewalks or streets, at UNC Greensboro the bikes are ridden and parked responsibly 98% of the time, roughly the same compliance rate as with privately owned bikes, Williams says. “Our community is extremely supportive of bike share. We receive far more positive comments than negative.” Two months after the university launched bike sharing, Greensboro expanded the effort citywide. The program has exceeded ridership expectations, with the university planning to add Lime’s electric scooters.

East Carolina University in Greenville introduced Lime on its campus in mid-March. “Within the first 40 days of our launch, we had nearly reached 20,000 rides, and this was more than we could have hoped for,” says Josh Rossnagel, external operation supervisor at ECU Parking and Transportation. “Students are utilizing the [bikes] to make their morning commutes from a nearby neighborhood to campus. Many of these students in the past had chosen to make this commute using motor vehicles.”

But unlike college campuses, cities aren’t inherently bike-friendly. It takes planning (and money) to make space for two-wheeled transit. Despite the rave reviews from college officials, bike-share companies may be converting some people into bicycle bashers. In Charlotte, which in November launched a one-year pilot program for dockless bikes, some residents are disenchanted with the randomly discarded bikes.

“When I first became aware of dockless bikes … I thought it was a guerrilla-marketing gimmick,” says Candice Langston, managing director of a Charlotte nonprofit. Langston lives in Plaza-Midwood, a neighborhood about 2 miles east of the center city, where Lime and other bike-sharing companies, including China-owned ofo and Mobike and San Francisco-based Spin, have deployed their fleets. “I remember thinking the branding agency behind it was really on their game, because the apparent randomness [of bikes placed around town] must mean a brilliant reveal was imminent.”

Langston applauds the idea of easy-to-rent bikes but faults the execution. “It’s a great thing to get people out of their cars and moving around the city on two wheels, but the problems of clutter, safety and quality control [need] more thought,” she says. “I see bikes left on sidewalks, in yards and on every street corner in the neighborhood. I think cities — not just Charlotte — jumped on the bike-share bandwagon and didn’t spend the appropriate amount of time thinking it through.”

Lime tries to avoid “misparked” bikes through online videos showing proper parking techniques. There’s also an on-the-ground operations team to retrieve errant bikes and restage ones that aren’t properly lined up. Those people don’t work 24/7 — except in bike-crazy cities such as Seattle — but they staff up around peak ridership times.

Charlotte Department of Transportation officials declined to comment on the dockless bikes, which complement a docked-bike program the city has offered since 2012. According to the department’s website, in April there were 34,564 trips taken on dockless bikes, with nearly 10,000 users trying bike sharing for the first time. The majority of users — 42% — made between one and three trips during the month.

The Charlotte B-cycle docked bike service gets private and public support, including a $1.7 million grant from the federal government and funding from insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. A 24-hour pass is $8, and an annual membership is $65. From July 1, 2017, through March 5, riders logged 32,542 trips around town on B-cycle’s 200 bikes. Since the subsidized blue bikes aren’t dockless, few are abandoned because users pick them and drop them off at one of 24 stations uptown and in surrounding neighborhoods. UNC Chapel Hill also uses a docked bike system by Charleston, S.C.-based Gotcha Bike.

Can cities such as Charlotte support both dockless and docked bike programs? Probably, because B-cycle usage hasn’t changed much since dockless bikes were introduced, says Dianna Ward, B-cycle’s executive director and board president of the North American Bikeshare Association. “We believe dockless bikes are not competition for the docked system of Charlotte B-cycle. Competition lies in the evolving attitudes of potential riders, the automobile culture and the weather.”

So far, there’s no sign of a “ban-the-bikes” movement in North Carolina, as seen in some other communities. Coronado, Calif., doesn’t have a bike-share program, but bikes from other cities nevertheless get abandoned there. In March, the city announced plans to impound rogue bikes and charge bike-share companies $45 per bike to reclaim them.

At ECU, some vandalism and misuse have occurred, but “overall we have had a positive experience with the student body,” Rossnagel says.

Can dockless bikes and citizens who find them an annoyance coexist? Fasten your helmet and grip those handlebars. This could be a bumpy ride.

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