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How Texas Cities Plan to Deal with Disruptive Bike-Shares

The newest craze in urban transportation seems to be on-demand bikes, but cities are increasingly running into problems with the services.

by Bill Hanna, Sandra Baker, Fort Worth Star-Telegram / March 12, 2018
Ofo, the world's largest dockless bike-share company, is pushing for state regulations in Florida that would preempt local rules. (Shutterstock)

(TNS) —  In the heart of Dallas, bicycles are everywhere.

They're parked side-by-side along sidewalks throughout downtown, Uptown and Deep Ellum.

They litter the ground and sidewalks along Lemmon Avenue and Mockingbird Lane and they've been unceremoniously dumped in random places, like an empty lot east of downtown or abandoned near the West Fork of the Trinity River.

Estimates say there are somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000 bikes in Dallas — no one is sure of the exact number — more than the 12,000 in New York City and the 10,000 in Seattle.

And while the benefits of riding bikes — advocates say they're an easy way to get exercise, cut down on pollution and traffic congestion and encourage economic growth (see Amazon) — have not been cast aside, Dallas has become rather dubious with its bicycle dilemma.

It's something that Fort Worth and Arlington want to avoid.

Ofo, one of the bike companies operating in Dallas, has a few bikes scattered around downtown Arlington and is debating whether to start a pilot program in Fort Worth.

In Arlington, the City Council talked last month about whether an ordinance or some type of permitting is needed for bike-share companies. Some council members appeared to support the idea but Mayor Jeff Williams is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"We're going to work with the bike companies here in Arlington," Williams said. "If things go well, they'll take care of the problem. If not, our committee may have to legislate something."

But Williams was clear he doesn't want to see a repeat of the problems that have taken place in Dallas.

"We don't want to see piles of bikes dumped everywhere and laying on the ground," Williams said. "It doesn't help any city."

Nor does Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who's willing to try out the dockless programs, particularly in far north Fort Worth and the southeast side where they're needed. Fort Worth has Bcycle, a station-based bike-share program. Price said both types of bikes can co-exist in the city.

"I'm sure we'll be looking at them," Price said. "We’re going to have to figure out how to sort it out. We don't want them littered everywhere. We’re not going to have them dropped off in the right-of-way and piled up in parks."

Although Fort Worth is concerned about bicycle dumping, the city is in far better shape than Dallas to accept the bikes.

Everett Weiler, Ofo’s Dallas-Fort Worth general manager, said Fort Worth should respond well to a dockless bike-share program and his company is hopeful one will start before summer.

Dallas didn't respond well at first to the bike-share program because the city is not set up for bike transportation.

Fort Worth is "very bike friendly," Weiler said.

Price, an avid bicyclist, agrees. But, she warns, if the dockless companies can't keep up with their bikes, "then we'll stick with the dockable. We're a city's that's not going to tolerate them being tossed around."

Dallas has received its share of criticism for bicycles being strewn all over the city, from landing in people's yards to being perched in a tree. It has even become fodder for KTCK-The Ticket, where morning drive-time host and cyclist Craig Miller has repeatedly asked why Dallas can't get its act together.

"Dallas went from zero bikes to a lot of bikes. The citizens in Dallas were incredibly disrupted by the bikes," Weiler said.

'I think it's really working'

Despite the criticism, Dallas City Councilman Lee Kleinman, chairman of the city's mobility committee, remains a staunch supporter of bike-share.

"Yeah, I think it's really working," Kleinman said. "No doubt there are challenges. A lot of that has to do with going from no bikes to as many as 20,000 bikes. That's more than New York. That's more than any city in the country."

When Fort Worth began its docked bike-share program in 2013, Kleinman said he was envious, but Dallas wouldn't dedicate funds for a similar program. To get bike companies to operate in Dallas, they took the opposite approach.

"What we have is a competitive market open to all vendors unlike Fort Worth, which is a regulated monopoly," Kleinman said.

Those wanting to rent bikes in Dallas need an app for one of the bike-share companies — Ofo, Spin, Vbikes, Limebike and Z — to locate available bikes through a GPS system. Once you choose and find a bike, you use a phone app to unlock its back tire and away you go, for about $1 an hour. When finished you can park it — or dump it — wherever you like.

At a Feb. 26 committee meeting dealing with bike-share, Dallas did receive some ridership information from two companies, Limebike and Ofo. The other companies did not comply with the request for data, said Jared White, the city's bicycle transportation manager.

Ofo said riders have logged about 100,000 miles since November with nearly 70 percent of rides starting or ending near a transit stop. Twenty percent of their fleet serves southern Dallas with hundreds of trips taken by Paul Quinn College students. There was more than a 50 percent increase in trips from December to January.

Limebike said about 70,000 residents and visitors have used its bikes more than 183,000 times, with more than 6,000 trips in a single day. Twenty percent of all trips start and end near a transit station with 51 percent of riders using the service during the evening rush hour.

Both companies have heat-signature maps that show most of the heavy usage occurring in the city center.

White took issue with the assertion that Dallas won't take action to regulate the bike-share companies until next fall. He said city officials will be meeting with the companies next week and hope to come up with some formal rules in the next 30 days.

"We're talking about a license agreement or franchise agreement," White said. "We're talking about how long a bike can sit before being picked up, how quick must their response times be. Should we be looking at designated areas for bikes in heavy use areas?"

The city also wants to require the companies to share more data about bike usage so officials can analyze it independently.

Most of the bike-share companies have hired more staff to clean up bikes strewn along sidewalks, Kleinman said, noting that conditions have improved.

He acknowledges that "some disgruntled people like to go down streets and push over bikes," creating a mess in some areas.

"I think we'll try to deal with it through policy rather than an ordinance," Kleinman said. "Will there be a fee system for them like a franchise fee for Oncor or the cable company to use our right-of-way? We'll see."

'We can see the problem'

Arlington and Fort Worth are not unlike other cities dealing with whether to regulate, or not, bike-share companies.

Ofo, the Beijing-based bike-share company, is trying a new tact in Florida. There, Ofo wants the state Legislature to regulate the dockless bike-share companies and is lobbying for bills that would push cities out of the regulating business, Governing magazine reports.

The dockless bike industry is getting so big that in 2014 a handful of industry stakeholders formed the North America Bike Share Association that, among other things, provides a code of conduct and a way to report violations.

More than 130 North American cities have bike-share programs, according to the 70-member organization.

"A city can play a role in putting together policies and asking these operators to get permits to make them accountable for maintenance and co-locating the bikes," said Shima Hamidi, director of the University of Texas at Arlington's Institute of Urban Studies.

San Francisco's bike-share rules are a good example of putting rules in place before allowing dockless bike-share, Hamidi said.

In San Francisco, the permit requires stationless operators to pay start-up fees ranging from $12,208 to $19,558, annual renewals ranging from $9,725 to $17,074, and $2,500 a year to cover potential repairs to public property, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. For every two bikes put into operation, dockless bike companies must pay San Francisco to purchase and install a bike rack that can handle two bikes, at a cost of $90 each.

Hamidi said bike-share can be helpful for people using public transportation for the "last mile" between where they work and live and a transit station.

In Arlington, only a handful of Ofo bikes are usually visible around downtown Arlington. Ofo has been in Arlington since mid-November largely incident free, Weiler said.

But there was an issue with Ofo bikes being left on the UTA campus in November, which caused the university to collect the bikes and issue a cease-and-desist letter to the company, according to the campus newspaper, The Shorthorn.

UTA launched an exclusive bike-share program with Zagster in August that includes 40 bikes at seven docking stations around campus.

Students pay annual membership and can use it "just like a gym card" to pedal from one end of campus to the other, said Meghna Tare, executive director of UTA's Institute for Sustainability and Global Impact. From Aug. 23 to Feb. 26, the bike-share program had a total of 5,184 trips, an average of 195 a week.

So far, 670 students are active in the program.

"We can see the problem if they're not docked," Tare said. "Bikes are so cheap it takes 10 rides to recover the cost of one bike."

'There's a place for dockless'

Fort Worth's bike-share program has been in place for five years and features 350 bicycles that are parked at 46 docking stations across downtown, the Cultural District, the Trinity Trails, the Stockyards, Near Southside and TCU.

And while the program keeps bikes from being discarded wherever the rider likes, it also limits where a rider can go because they can only travel from station to station.

That's why some bike enthusiasts want the city to add a dockless program.

After two presentations on the issue since December, Fort Worth’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Commission will talk about the topic again at its April meeting. But this time, the group asked for more technical and legal advice.

The commission appears to be leaning toward allowing the dockless bikes as a way to expand the transportation mode to areas of the city where the current bike-share program doesn’t operate.

Jason Lamers, the commission’s chairman, said at its recent meeting that safety concerns regarding the quality of the bikes and how quickly the dockless companies respond to picking up bikes left where they shouldn’t be, need to be addressed.

“I feel like there’s a place for dockless,” Lamers said. “It needs to be done in a respectful manner and not a free-for-all. We need to talk about expanding the bike-share amenities in Fort Worth.”

The advisory commission was asked to vet a possible bike-share policy after some dockless bike companies came into Fort Worth last summer and dumped bikes on downtown sidewalks without permission. Companies also approached the city about operating here without bringing bikes in. Some Lime bikes recently showed up uninvited in downtown near City Hall.

Kristen Camareno, executive director of the nonprofit Fort Worth Bike Sharing, told the commission they’ve been talking about expanding, but that it will cost money. They’ve also talked about offering a dockless bike, but one with technology letting the rider know they’re leaving a bike where they shouldn’t be.

“We haven’t yet seen a great example of dockless,” she said. “We know where our bikes are all the time.”

Fort Worth Bike Sharing also recently changed its $8, 24-hour memberships to offer unlimited one-hour rides.

Before, the 24-hour membership was unlimited 30-minute rides. The average ride between stations is 42 minutes, Camareno said. If the bikes weren’t docked in 30 minutes, the rider was charged a $1.50 usage fee.

Other cities take action

Both Plano and Denton have recently enacted ordinances that give specific rules about where and when bikes can be parked.

In Denton, the rules also limit a bike-share company to 150 bikes.

In Plano, bike-sharing bicycles can only be parked on the sidewalk but not on sidewalk corners or near crosswalks, according to the Plano Star Courier. In residential areas, the bike-share bicycles can be parked for 48 hours and must be moved within 24 hours of a notice that they are inoperable.

"Basically, the ordinance allows bike-share by permit," said Peter Braster, director of special projects for the City of Plano.

Highland Park took it a step further, essentially telling bike-share companies that any bikes left overnight in the city would be impounded and it would be costly to recover them, according to WFAA.

Other cities shouldn't wait for the onslaught of bikes to arrive, said White of the City of Dallas. It's only a matter of time, he said, before they start showing up in neighboring cities. And there's some anecdotal evidence that they're spreading out to other cities by DART light rail and the Trinity Railway Express.

"I don't think you need to wait around," White said. "You need to deal with it."

While those cities felt the need to regulate bike share companies. Kleinman, who is also a member of the North Central Texas Council of Governments Regional Transportation Council, said he wants to see North Texas cities take a regional approach to regulating the growing industry.

"Once we determine best practices, I hope our neighbors will follow suit and not take a city-by-city approach," Kleinman said. "Even though Plano put in some regulations, it was very light. We've got to work together. I really believe we cannot build our way out of congestion. We've got to find a way to get people out of their cars."

It’s happening.... The #LimeBikes are advancing westward. #FortWorth

— Matt Martinez (@MCTinez817) February 28, 2018

©2018 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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