Dockless bike-share users in Seattle have left the cycles in many strange spots, even hanging from street signs. Credit: Dockless Bike Fail

The Seattle-based Twitter feed Dockless Bike Fail hilariously showcases the downside of dockless bike sharing, one of the newest developments in the shared-mobility boom. With this technology, customers can use a cell phone app to locate and access cycles distributed around a city and secured with built-in locks. Unlike traditional bike-share systems like Chicago’s Divvy, there’s no need to install expensive docking stations, and users can leave the cycles right at their destinations.

However, as Dockless Bike Fail illustrates, since the bikes are typically “free-locked,” not secured to a rack or pole, it’s easy for clueless customers, vandals, and pranksters to leave the cycles in hazardous or downright ridiculous locations. The feed includes photos of dockless bikes scattered across sidewalks, hanging from stop signs and trees, and even submerged in Seattle’s Lake Union.

Due to this potential for street clutter (Amsterdam has already banned the technology for clogging its bike racks), as well as questions about maintenance, geographic equity, and competition with Divvy, Chicago hasn’t yet permitted dockless providers to operate here. However, bike advocates in Seattle and Washington, D.C., the nation’s leading laboratories for dockless bike share (aka DoBi), say the technology is a generally positive addition. Their local counterparts argue that Chicago should also allow DoBi operators—who have recently been courting city officials—to set up shop, provided the systems are run in a responsible and equitable way that complements rather than disrupts Divvy.

The American dockless boom got rolling in Seattle this summer after the city’s traditional bike-share system, Pronto, tanked due to low ridership, blamed on a relatively small number of poorly located stations, plus a local helmet law. Currently San Francisco’s Spin and Beijing’s Ofo as well as LimeBike, in San Mateo, California, each have more than 2,000 bikes in the city, with plans for expansion. (Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s former senior adviser David Spielfogel is a board member with LimeBike, and former Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, who oversaw the 2013 Divvy launch, joined Spin’s board earlier this month.) In comparison, Divvy currently has about 6,000 cycles and 580 stations.

“The free-floating bike-share companies have been amazing,” Seattle Bike Blog editor Tom Fucoloro says. He reports that, unlike Divvy bikes, the cycles make their way to all neighborhoods, and the simpler pricing scheme—a dollar for a 30-minute ride—is much more attractive to casual users. Referring to Divvy’s less convenient day-pass structure, Fucoloro says, “The $10 for 24 hours of unlimited 30-minute trips thing is dead.”

The vast majority of DoBis in Seattle are parked correctly, Fucoloro says, and cycles that block walkways or wheelchair ramps are usually moved promptly by passersby. But vandalism of the bikes is a problem. “Like anything in the public realm,” he says, “the public has its say about it.”

In September, Washington, D.C., home to the successful Capital Bikeshare docked system, launched an experiment by allowing Spin, LimeBike, Beijing-based Mobike, and Jump, an electrical-assist bike company from San Francisco, to release up to 400 cycles each. Ex-Chicagoan Payton Chung, a director with the Urban Land Institute planning think tank and a longtime cycling advocate, reports that there are often mechanical problems with the bikes and that they tend to accumulate downtown, which is located downhill from most of the city. However, he says the availability of the popular, sometimes-scarce Capital Bikeshare vehicles seems to have improved since hundreds of new rides hit the streets. Divvy availability is currently an issue here—many Loop stations tend to be empty by 6 PM.

Dockless bike share also has the potential to address Divvy’s geographic equity problem. While the system’s service area currently includes almost two-thirds of the city’s residents, station density tends to be higher in more populous and affluent areas, and many outlying neighborhoods, including several lower-income African-American and Latino communities, don’t have docks.

The city plans this spring to add 400 more bikes and 40 stations, funded by Divvy revenue and a federal transportation grant. The new docks will increase density in some lower- income areas. But since the Trump administration has threatened to cut all federal funding for bike projects, expanding the system may be more difficult in the future. Dockless technology could be a way to serve more Chicago neighborhoods that would require no public funding, and it could tax generate revenue for our cash-strapped city.

Slow Roll Chicago cofounder Oboi Reed says he wants to tap dockless bike share’s potential to improve transportation access in communities of color. At the launch party for his new mobility justice organization, Equiticity, earlier this month, he announced that Jump and Ofo have each offered the group and partner organizations 100-plus cycles to establish “bike libraries” for residents in North Lawndale and Riverdale.

In early November Ofo delivered 14 “seed bikes” to the Riverdale-based bike group We Keep You Rollin’. The full bike fleets for Riverdale and North Lawndale are slated to arrive in April.

In addition, Ofo recently notified me that the company hopes to release 50 bikes on the Northwestern University campus later this fall, which would represent its first launch at a U.S. university.

The full details of the Equiticity bike library programs haven’t been hashed out, but leaving dockless cycles out on Chicago streets would probably require the city’s blessing, and so far officials haven’t given it. At a Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council meeting earlier this month, Chicago Department of Transportation officials said Reed had asked for a letter of support for the bike libraries, but CDOT had declined because the city doesn’t have a policy on the new technology.

During a recent local panel discussion on bike share, CDOT’s Amanda Woodall, who helps manage Divvy, voiced her concern that rather than improving access for underserved neighborhoods, DoBi companies might just focus on more profitable areas. She also noted that there have been cases in other cities where companies dropped off bikes but neglected to maintain them. Another issue is that dockless systems could potentially cannibalize Divvy revenue, which has been used to fund safety improvements such as the recent upgrade of Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park and Bucktown.

At the advisory council meeting, transportation chief Rebekah Scheinfeld said CDOT has been discussing dockless bike share with the mayor’s office and other departments. She noted that Karen Tamley, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities, has raised concerns that poorly parked DoBi bikes could create a pedestrian hazard, especially for those with visual impairments.

Deputy CDOT commissioner Sean Wiedel says his department met with Spin representatives in October to discuss permitting issues, and the company has also reached out to local bike nonprofits about contracting them to maintain the cycles. “We expect to be meeting with dockless providers and other stakeholders in the coming months,” he says.

Spin CEO Derrick Ko promises that his company’s technology would be a positive addition to our city’s bike scene. “Chicago has a fantastic system in Divvy,” he says. “We’re interested in complementing Divvy and bringing affordable bike share to all neighborhoods.” He adds that his company will work with the city to ensure that “the right kind of regulations and operator responsibilities are in place to ensure responsible use by all riders.”

Sharon Feigon, director of the Chicago­based Shared Use Mobility Center, says it’s understandable that the city wants to proceed with caution. “I do worry about the pictures I’ve seen of bikes piled up everywhere, so that clearly does have to be addressed.” But Feigon, who formerly led I-Go Car Sharing, adds that Chicago shouldn’t be overly timid about allowing DoBi operators to bring their fleets to town. “When I was running I-GO and Zipcar showed up, we were very upset, but in reality it helped build a bigger culture for car sharing,” she says. “It’s always scary to have a new player in town.”   v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.