Bicycle share companies have quickly become one of Dallas residents’ favorite things to gripe about, and City Hall now seems poised to draw up new rules that will regulate how those companies will operate. But it is too soon to clamp down on them, regardless of how chaotic and unseemly the bike share experiment may seem. Here’s why.
Everyone talks about the mess. Dallas doesn’t have a high tolerance for mess. Much of its urban development over the past 100 years can be tied to a general impatience with cluttered public spaces. It was an attitude that shaped the city in the midcentury — a desire to clear out what was considered old, out-of-date, and out-of-step with a new vision of progress. Entire blocks of mid-rise, mixed-use structures were razed in favor of superblock developments, roads that whisk cars through shattered commercial districts and urban neighborhoods, and life-sucking civic plazas that were grand, clean, and empty.
Now the bikes are cluttering Dallas’ clean and underutilized streets. People blame the bike companies, which have glutted the market with bikes to determine if there is latent demand that will respond to a sudden saturation of supply. Is this strategy irresponsible? Is it working? How can we know yet?
Anecdotally, working downtown, I see people on the bikes all the time. I’ve ridden them a few times, and I’ve been tempted to ride more often but opted against it because of the recent cold. The bike share companies probably have statistics about just how popular the bikes are so far, what works and what doesn’t and where. (LimeBike released some of theirs last week.) But there hasn’t been enough time to really learn the answers to the two most pressing questions facing the future of the bike shares: is there sufficient demand, and what is the best operational design to ensure the best use?
No one knows if bike share will work in Dallas. We could sit back and speculate, create plans and map out idealized ways the system could function. This is how Dallas typically approaches its urban challenges. But those plans too often don’t correspond to reality. And so the bike share companies’ idea doesn’t sound half-bad: glut the market so that there are bikes conveniently located on every street corner, and then let the habits of potential riders sort it all out.
The problem, for some, is that too many companies are playing the same game. The result is pile-ups, blocked sidewalks, impacted ADA accesses, and general bicycle nuisance. But is it fair to blame the companies for this? I don’t think so. Rather, the companies have simply — and somewhat unwittingly — revealed flaws in human behavior and urban design.
The pranks, vandalism, and general inconsiderateness around the use of the bikes were to be expected — especially in a city like Dallas. Shared public space and public assets are in short supply in Dallas. Unlike healthier urban environments, with their functioning public transit, vibrant street life, and dense neighborhoods, Dallas residents don’t often have to navigate the thousands of common, everyday interactions with strangers that define the experience of sharing the public space of a city. As a result, the bike problems stem from what you might call Dallas’ general lack of public space literacy. Learning to see the bikes as public assets and not trash will take time. It will require the slow build up of a positive form of social taboo around abusing the bikes and respecting how their use may impact other people. Once the novelty wears off, Dallasites will learn to be more respectful of their fellow residents with regards to using, parking, disposing, and maintaining the bikes. Give it time.
The bicycle share has also revealed something beyond this sociological symptom: Dallas has very poor bicycle infrastructure. It has an embarrassing lack of bike lanes, few bike racks, and limited places for bikes to go. Before, when there were no bikes, this wasn’t a visible problem. But now that there are a ton of bikes on Dallas’ streets, it is clear that Dallas has done a poor job planning for multiple modes of transportation.
Rather than regulate the behavior and operations of the bike share companies, why not create ways to better integrate bicycles into Dallas’ streets? There is plenty of evidence that such investments reap rewards. In a way, the bike share companies have forced the city’s hand: if they can prove that there is latent demand in Dallas for cycling as a form of transportation and leisure, the city should respond by better integrating that mode of transit into the streetscape.
But is there sufficient demand for these services? There was an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News a few months ago that argued that the underlying economics of the bike share businesses don’t seem to pencil out. How can so many companies be profitable selling $1/hour rides in a city where people aren’t used to riding bikes? Surely, the author argued, this bike sharing thing is a fad, propped up by venture capital dough, that can’t support itself economically.
Perhaps the author is right, but to me this doesn’t sound like an argument in favor of stepping in and regulating the bike share companies. Rather, hold off and let the market sort itself out. I can’t see a way all the companies that are flooding the streets of Dallas today with bikes survive. But what the city shouldn’t do is intervene in a way that may hasten the demise of any potentially successful companies. When some of the companies begin to go out of business, the bike clutter problem will begin to take care of itself.
All of which is to say that now is not the time to move ahead with regulating the new bike share companies. Some of the ideas I’ve heard tossed around include forcing companies to limit the number of bikes available within certain areas or impounding bikes that are left in inconvenient places. Maybe, down the road, some version of these kinds of laws will be necessary. But not now.
It is too soon and will only distort the results of the current valuable experiment, which, by the way, may determine that there is demand for more bike transit and infrastructure. We still don’t know how the bikes will be used in the warmer months, or how slow adapters will respond after the bikes continue to be available over a longer stretch of time, or what the most efficient distribution of bikes across Dallas will look like.
Instead of new regulations, the city should be discussing bike infrastructure. What would the bike share situation look like if there were more bike lanes, bike racks, or dedicated bike parking spaces? Would the clutter exist if every square foot of curb space wasn’t given up to auto parking? The bike share boom has shown that multiple venture capitalists have picked this city as a place worthy of a hefty investment of private equity in the future of bike transit.
What are the potential opportunities of leveraging city investment in bicycle infrastructure as well?