Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

What Can Dockless Bikes Tell Us About Cities?

Popular

By Enrique Gili

This past spring, clusters of brightly colored dockless shared bikes (DSBs) began to proliferate on San Diego's city sidewalks like tulips after a spring rain. They were put there by companies—such as Lime, Ofo and Mobike—seeking to disrupt the status quo of California's omnipresent car culture. As a result, thousands of DSBs ended up scattered around commercial districts and residential neighborhoods. Dozens of markets—from major metropolitan cities like Minneapolis and Dallas to college campuses like Arkansas State University—have similarly bike-strewn landscapes as a result of the DSB wave, which added 44,000 bikes to U.S. streets in 2017.


The companies behind DSBs are united in their eagerness to capitalize on the so-called sharing economy (which has exploded since the dawn of Uber and Airbnb) by changing the way people travel and commute. The premise of DSBs is simple: Why own a set of wheels when you can rent them? Instead of driving, busing, requesting a Lyft, or having to own and maintain a traditional docked bicycle, DSB customers simply download an app to their smartphone, locate a DSB (or even an electric scooter), and scan the QR code that'll unlock the wheels to begin their carbon-free journey. When they're done, users can leave the untethered bikes or scooters wherever custom and the law allows.

And these companies are blanketing cities and university towns. "The more bikes you have, the more people use them," said Scott Kubly, director of government relations for the San Mateo, California–based Lime (formerly LimeBike), which launched in June 2017. Lime and its brethren aim to disrupt existing transportation systems by making the dockless bikes readily available, and affordable to most city-dwellers.

As a carless San Diegan and avid A-to-B cyclist, I can attest that having DSBs within walking distance of bus routes and the trolley eases the burden of taking public transportation in San Diego. And in theory, having an abundance of DSBs dotted about the city makes commuting without a car feasible, if not always practical. On average, DSB users pay $1 per hour, which is ample time to cover several miles over mixed terrain.

In San Diego, however, as in many cities, DSBs' sudden appearance on city sidewalks has led to pushback from unhappy residents. Dockless bikes have been haphazardly parked and clumped in odd spots around the city (including crosswalks and private yards), leading to nuisance complaints. In retaliation, vandals have destroyed DSBs or stranded them in inconvenient places, such as bodies of water. In the Coronado and Little Italy neighborhoods, two popular San Diego tourist destinations, city officials have outright banned DSBs, citing safety concerns. In the nearby resort city of Coronado, officials have begun impounding DSBs and fining the companies for uncollected bikes.

Bike advocates, on the other hand, argue that DSBs are a boon for commuters. More cyclists on the road, they contend, means less traffic congestion, which mitigates the pernicious effects of ground-level pollution and the health problems associated with exposure to tailpipe emissions.

Yet for all the well-documented controversy surrounding DSBs, one overlooked aspect is the rivers of data their systems generate. Since each bike is equipped with sensors, and each cyclist carries a GPS-enabled smartphone, any given fleet of DSBs is collecting multiple terabytes of user information.

According to Eric Smith, a spokesperson for Ofo, the aggregate data collected from DSBs can provide newfound opportunities to reduce the number of cars on the road, "by solving the riddle of the last mile, and by filling the unmet needs of riders."

There's no denying that as more devices are being created with wi-fi capabilities and built-in sensors, the Internet of Things makes it increasingly possible to forecast users' haunts and habits—revealing patterns and market trends at a pace and scale that humans can't match. It's how Amazon optimizes its platform to anticipate the needs of online shoppers, and how Airbnb calculates the price of vacation rentals.

Could it be how DSB companies help to wean people off cars, which are still viewed as the first and foremost mode of transportation for so many? It's hard to say, because as of now, that vast reservoir of data that DSBs can accumulate remains largely untapped.

However, early municipal adopters of DSB systems do have inklings about what that information can reveal. For example, through a citywide survey, Seattle's Department of Transportation concluded 75 percent of DSB rentals were for transit purposes, which peaked around 4 P.M., during the afternoon rush hour. Perhaps more surprisingly, the survey showed that roughly two-thirds of Seattle's inhabitants have used DSBs within the past year, with ridership equally divided between the city's white and minority populations, and between neighborhoods as diverse as the tony University District and Georgetown, which is much more industrial.

Mark West, a city council member in Imperial Beach, California, insists that DSBs aren't just for hipsters and tourists. In 2017, the blue-collar beach town, which is wedged against the U.S.-Mexico border, became the first city in San Diego County to adopt dockless bikes.

"You see middle-school and high-school students ride them all the time," said West, who notes that dockless bikes have wildly exceeded his expectations. "This is a transportation medium that a lot of people are really using, and that a lot of people really like."

Indeed, in an ideal world, DSB companies, by getting users where they need to go in a cheap and timely fashion, could do much to mitigate one of the foremost contributors to climate change. "The biggest competitors we have are cars, and not other bike-share companies," said Smith of Ofo. "We're all trying to get more cars off the road."

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

People visit Jacksonville Beach on July 4, 2020 in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Public health experts have attributed Florida's growing coronavirus caseload to people gathering in crowds. Sam Greenwood / Getty Images

Florida broke the national record for the most new coronavirus cases reported in a single day on Sunday, with a total of 15,299.

Read More Show Less
Marco Bottigelli / Moment / Getty Images

By James Shulmeister

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you'd like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

Read More Show Less
Luxy Images / Getty Images

By Jo Harper

Investment in U.S. offshore wind projects are set to hit $78 billion (€69 billion) this decade, in contrast with an estimated $82 billion for U.S. offshore oil and gasoline projects, Wood Mackenzie data shows. This would be a remarkable feat only four years after the first offshore wind plant — the 30 megawatt (MW) Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island — started operating in U.S. waters.

Read More Show Less
Giacomo Berardi / Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed both the strengths and limitations of globalization. The crisis has made people aware of how industrialized food production can be, and just how far food can travel to get to the local supermarket. There are many benefits to this system, including low prices for consumers and larger, even global, markets for producers. But there are also costs — to the environment, workers, small farmers and to a region or individual nation's food security.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Joe Leech

The human body comprises around 60% water.

It's commonly recommended that you drink eight 8-ounce (237-mL) glasses of water per day (the 8×8 rule).

Read More Show Less

By Michael Svoboda

The enduring pandemic will make conventional forms of travel difficult if not impossible this summer. As a result, many will consider virtual alternatives for their vacations, including one of the oldest forms of virtual reality – books.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Thursday accused NOAA of ignoring its own scientists' findings about the endangerment of the North Atlantic right whale. Lauren Packard / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Julia Conley

As the North Atlantic right whale was placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's list of critically endangered species Thursday, environmental protection groups accusing the U.S. government of bowing to fishing and fossil fuel industry pressure to downplay the threat and failing to enact common-sense restrictions to protect the animals.

Read More Show Less