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Washington, D.C.'s Bike-Sharing Goes Dockless and Electric

The nation's capital has become a test bed for the next-generation bike-sharing program, in which riders can find a bike to rent using an app and have it powered by an electric motor.

In Washington, D.C., you now have the option of renting a bicycle that can be picked up and dropped off anywhere. There's no need to try and find a docking station. And the bike you rent might be powered by an electric motor, saving you the exertion of pedaling to your destination.
The nation's capital is one of several cities that are embracing the next generation in bike-sharing, in which those clumsy-looking and expensive docking stations have been eliminated, replaced by bikes that riders can find and unlock using a phone app. At least one company that offers dockless biking is renting out electric bikes as well. 

In cities across the United States where biking infrastructure continues to improve with more miles of dedicated bike lanes, bike-share companies are taking note and are renting bikes that give riders options when it comes to location and mobility, thanks to better technology.
“Obviously, the biking culture here in America has grown in the last decade,” said Jillian Irvin, U.S. head of Government Affairs and Public Policy at Mobike, a Beijing-based bike-sharing company that is expanding in the United States. “Cities are putting more money into infrastructure. And we think that by working with government and sharing some of the data that we’re collecting, we can help improve the American markets with regard to their transportation and biking infrastructure.”
Mobike – along with other companies – has opted for the dockless system, where riders use their smartphone to locate an available bike, which is GPS enabled. Rides are generally about $1 for 30 minutes. The companies also tend to charge a refundable deposit when you sign up, usually $50 to $100.
Supporters of dockless bike-sharing talk about the convenience it offers, and how it may open the door to a new option for urban commuting.
“You don’t have to bike 10 blocks, only then to have to walk three blocks to get to your destination,” said Nick Foley, vice-president for industrial design at Social Bicycle, another bike-sharing company. SoBi, as it is commonly known, has been involved with developing and deploying dockless bike-share systems for about six years.
Officials stress it's imperative that bicycles, including bike-sharing systems, become an active and engaging part of any city's transportation strategy. 
"First and foremost to me is better bike infrastructure," said Becky Katz, chief bicycle officer for the city of Atlanta. "A protected bike lane all-ages-network is the way to get people to ride. Bike sharing is an amazing public transportation option and the expansion of systems and size of systems recently has felt exponential. But you can't achieve high bike-share ridership if people don't feel safe riding."
In 2016 some 1.4 percent of workers in Atlanta commuted via bicycle, up from only 0.7 percent the year before, according the U.S. Census American Community Survey. 
City officials say dockless systems could eliminate some of their concerns about bike-sharing programs, such as finding space for the docking sites and properly maintaining them. 
"One of the biggest issues for a town of our size — about 66,000 inhabitants — is how and who will maintain the system and how to monitor and balance bike share inventory in the community," said Bill Bowden, public relations manager for Davis, Calif., which is home to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame and has a long history of bike-friendliness. In 2016, about 17 percent of workers in Davis arrived at work on a bicycle, according to the American Community Survey.
Davis is also a stop on Amtrak's Capitol Corridor, a popular commuter rail route, making the city ripe for bike-sharing as commuters disembark from trains and then seamlessly hop onto a bike.  
SoBi operates bike-shares in about 40 cities globally. In most of these cases SoBi is the technology provider and the implementation partner, with day-to-day operations taken on by other companies.
SoBi recently launched electric bicycles in the Washington D.C. metro area. The motorized bikes give riders another option for moving around the District, one that might possibly be more attractive compared with navigating the crowded D.C. Metro system or even using a ride-hailing service like Uber.
“The user preference for an e-bike is tremendous,” said Foley, saying e-bikes are rented twice as much as conventional bikes.
Roughly 4.6 percent of commuters in the Washington D.C. area traveled via bicycle in 2016, according to the American Community Survey, up slightly from 4.1 percent the year before. Nationwide, 0.6 percent of workers commuted by bike in 2016.   
“We’ve never really operated a mixed fleet of e-bikes and non-e-bikes, but when you see the data from those systems, it’s sometimes a 4X utilization of e-bikes verses the regular bikes,” Foley added.
“Our e-bike product is going to be cheaper than any competing dock-based product that is not an e-bike,” said Foley, adding the electric bike-sharing cost riders $2 for 30 minutes. Riders can use the bikes for any amount of time as long as they finish their trip within the service area, which covers all of the District's wards. First time riders will receive a $10 credit to try out the system.
“Our core product advantage is we’ve been doing this for a long time," said Foley. "This ‘dockless’ boom is new, but we’ve been building this dockless e-bike product for three years at this point, and have an extremely mature supply-chain, and have a set of designs that allow us to deploy these e-bikes at a very low cost."
At last count, five bike-share companies have their sites on Washington, D.C., The New York Times recently reported. And two cities just outside Boston — Revere and Worcester — recently announced plans to partner with the Chinese company Ofo, to introduce dockless bike-sharing.
“I am confident that all of these dockless companies that we’re competing against, they’re only saying they aren’t doing e-bikes because they’re very new companies who haven’t had enough time to really figure it all out,” said Foley. “And two to three years from now, dockless e-bikes are going to be the only thing people talk about or expect. And by that time we’ll have deployed quite a large number of them in all the major cities.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.