Nobody would hold it against you if you’ve forgotten about Dallas’ attempt at starting a bike-share program. It’s absurdist municipal humor to consider it anything more than recreational: two lonely stations sit near DART line stops around the island of rarely used concrete known as Fair Park. Its setup essentially means that riders are either inconvenienced or essentially stuck in Fair Park and the surrounding environs—the bikes have to go back to that station.
That was in 2014, and it took all sorts of bureaucratic navigation to get through. It cost the city $125,000, and needed go-aheads from the Dallas Landmark Commission, which weren’t easy to get. Then it had to wait for the State Fair to come and go. It opened to the public in the winter. And in all this, someone somewhere surely said to themselves, can’t we just put the damn bikes there and move on? Earlier this month, just about three years after all that, yellow and gray bikes began appearing in empty bike racks that dot downtown and Uptown. They’re called VBikes, a true bike-share program operated by a startup out of Garland that has branded itself with a logo that looks like a Fidget Spinner. No docking stations necessary. When you’re done, just knock down the kickstand.
It’s simple: Download the app, use the GPS to locate a bike, pay a $99 refundable deposit, then it’s a buck an hour to ride. Leave it where you please. The bikes each have a Bluetooth enabled lock; after linking with a bike through the app, hover your phone over the bike and it’ll unlock and you can pedal away. The app tracks where you take the bike and how far you go. That’s about all the data it’s primed to currently collect, says Luke Pettyjohn, an early employee and one of the company’s business development heads. The bikes, for now, are all concentrated in downtown and Uptown. Looking at the app Wednesday afternoon, there are bikes as far south as Jackson and Field streets and as north as McKinney and Routh. Bikers can take them anywhere they please.
“All of the feedback we get is, ‘we’ve been waiting for someone to come do this here. We’ve wanted bikes available to us.’ We think we’ve tapped into a latent demand that’s been missing here in Dallas,” Pettyjohn says. “Our goal is to get people on bikes.”
In the month that they’ve begun rolling these out, he says they’ve attracted 500 riders. About 50 bikes are deployed in downtown and Uptown. The company hooked 10 up at the two racks at Klyde Warren Park, which earned them a phone call from the park’s events manager. It wasn’t out of anger—they needed to work out a vendor deal, similar to the way the food trucks contract to sell on park property. Except this one didn’t involve money. VBikes’ goal of mobility and connectedness aligns with Klyde Warren’s.
“This fits right along with trying to bridge the gap and make everything more pedestrian friendly in Uptown and Downtown,” says Paul Frushour, the park’s events manager.
VBikes was started by David Shan, the founder of the Garland-based all-terrain vehicle manufacturer Massimo Motor Sports. He oversees a team of eight on the business side as well as four staffers whose job is to actually build the bikes. Everything happens in Garland, Pettyjohn says. The company can build 30 bikes a day; 200 are already assembled and awaiting deployment, pending partnership agreements with public and private entities. Every bike goes through a series of quality control tests, a regimen created by the company’s in-house repairman who has years of experience fixing up bikes. Technicians are deployed in high-traffic areas to monitor the bikes and perform preventive maintenance. The tires are airless. They bikes are all shaft-driven, meaning there is no chain to get caught on a rider’s jeans. The lock can go a year before it needs to be recharged; all told, Pettyjohn says they anticipate that the bikes won’t need significant maintenance for at least three years.
It’s all about simplicity and ease of use. Back in 2014, when the city was figuring out how to approach its bike-share program, urban planner Patrick Kennedy did his own research. He found that a single station would cost about $50,000 to install. To put in a 40-station system, it would’ve cost the city about $6 million. (Creative station leases with private entities had the potential to drive that down to $2 million, however.) The VBikes folks are strategically placing bikes around town in existing racks. The app takes care of the rest.
“We weren’t able to really go this route until we developed the technology,” says Matthew Morris, another early employee and business development head. “We’re a business solution rather than a government solution.”
Government bike-share solutions have proven to be expensive. Which has given rise to stationless startups like VBikes. Spin, which has launched in San Francisco and Austin, dug into the cost of operating the Bay Area Bike Share in San Fracisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, and San Jose. It found that the cities were, on average, paying $5,249 per bike, largely because of low usage. The bike-share isn’t generating enough revenue in fees to offset the cost of operating the stations. Part of the reason for this, the companies believe, is because of the inconvenience of being proverbially tethered to a station. The dock becomes another destination; riders can’t simply leave the bike where they please.
The effectiveness of a stationed program is tied to the strength of the network of stations. Using Spin’s data, let’s look at one of the nation’s most successful, Washington D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare. It launched in 2010 with 1,100 bikes and 114 stations. Today, it has 429 stations, 3,700 bikes, and an annual ridership of 2.1 million. There are 6.4 stations per square mile. Bay Area has just 1.5 per square mile and a usage rate of just 1.7 trips per bicycle per day. (D.C.’s logs 2.1, and New York’s Citi Bike gets 3.6, by far the highest in the country.) By untethering the bicycles, VBikes believes it escapes the convenience conundrum.
The refundable deposit of $99 may prove to be prohibitive for some, but Pettyjohn says they haven’t received any complaints since the bicycles landed downtown. They’re also playing with different fee structures, knocking the student price down to $49, for instance. Plus, the deposit is refundable should the customer wish to stop using the service. The team says that fee is meant to promote personal responsibility more than anything.
“So far, it’s really working,” Morris says. “We haven’t seen our bikes thrown anywhere. They’re on the racks and they’re being parked reasonably through the city.”
VBikes says it’s in conversation with DART and the city of Dallas, adding that discussions with the former are further along. The city caught wind of the startup last week, when more and more bicycles started showing up downtown. Jared White, the self-proclaimed “bicycle transportation manager” in the city’s Mobility and Street Services Department, says staff is amenable to the idea. And VBikes isn’t the only game in town. LimeBike, a Silicon Valley startup with $12 million in seed funding, quietly approached the city and began ironing out a partnership deal. VBikes just started putting their bicycles on racks.
“I live downtown and just started seeing them,” White says. “I read about what’s going on in other cities and how these folks kind of just show up. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s interesting in that this could be a really good opportunity to get a bike-share system because we’re not able to fund one.”
The attorneys for VBikes are talking to the attorneys for the city, and White says they’ll likely have to go through the formal permitting process “just like any other vendor.” But Dallas isn’t putting the kibosh on their operation, and White anticipates that the municipality will wind up offering “guidance on how we like them to operate” but not much else. (Morgan Lyons, a DART spokesman, wrote in an email that the agency has “had a couple of meetings with them and are exploring a possible pilot program that would begin later this year.”)
“This could be a way to get a bike-share system without any cost to the citizens and be on the leading edge of something for a change,” he quipped.
On Wednesday, the guys were preparing to take a few bikes over to the Buzz condos in the Cedars, just south of the DART line. The goal, Pettyjohn says, is to have enough bikes throughout the city that riders wouldn’t have to worry about being stranded somewhere without one. He wants the company to spread to other cities, so that someone from Dallas could hop on a VBike in San Diego without a problem.
“We want to be a nationwide fleet of thousands and thousands of bikes; we’re talking with other cities now already,” Pettyjohn says. “But our first goal is just to get more people on bikes.”