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Dallas’ Inability to Adopt Bikeshare May Have Worked Out as an Advantage

Dockless bikes have shown latent demand for bicycle transit. Now, the city needs to step up with better bike infrastructure to meet that demand.

City Lab has an interesting recent history of bikeshares in American cities—a history that, the site reminds us, is still relatively short:

It’s easy to forget how young and unformed this transportation mode is: The first modern municipal bikeshare, Paris’ Velib, launched in 2007, and the first programs in the U.S. appeared in 2010. In 2017, the field changed dramatically with the introduction of dockless equipment—primarily manufactured, distributed, and operated by Chinese companies—to U.S. markets.

Since then, cities have experimented with two models of bikeshare: docked systems, in which riders rent bikes from a specific location and return them to another dock; and the dock-less systems we have in Dallas, in which you can leave your rent-a-bike where ever you please (you can even get creative with it).

Both models come with their advantages and shortcomings. But looking into the future, what is the model that will work best? Which can meet the demand in car-oriented cities like Dallas to find new solutions to better way to navigate the city center, ease “last mile” trips on transit, or even push the city towards broader access to multi-modal transportation?

It’s hard to say. We’re still in the experimental period of bikeshare’s history. But looking at Washington D.C.’s experience with the program, CityLab argues that the dock-less option, despite all of its messy chaos, has some clear advantages over docked bike share when it comes to encouraging broader use:

Critics may fear that the cheaper, more unruly dockless bikes now appearing in in D.C. and elsewhere herald a second, more-intense wave of begriming the public realm. But it’s the first real hope the industry has had to meet either the demands of users who are hungry for expansions, or the cultural standards leveled at bikeshare (to be equitable, to be accessible, and to be available on-demand—often at a profit).

Early data from D.C.’s dockless pilot program has indicated that not only are people riding dockless, ridership on Capital Bikeshare is up as compared to this time last year. In other words, access to bikeshare seems to feed a demand for more bikeshare, and the easiest way to achieve that in more cities is with dockless equipment, or a mix of the two models.

In light of this, Dallas’ inability to adopt a docked bike share program (we’ll ignore that pathetic attempt in Fair Park) may have saved the city unnecessary public investment in a service that the private sector is now rushing to fill. But as officials in towns and cities around the region scratch their heads wondering how to deal with the side effects of the bikeshare laissez faire madness, what comes next?

The author of the City Lab article has some interesting answers as to how both the bikeshare companies and the municipalities in which they operate need to both come to the table with service improvements, including expanding bike infrastructure to forcing companies to share more data in order to optimize both bikeshare implementation and regulation:

There are things cities can do to use their regulatory capacity to encourage this process. In places with constrained space, planners and administrators will need to stand up for what all that data is telling them—that it’s time to take space away from cars to create more space for bikes and bike parking. It would be politically unpopular for D.C., for example, to address the complaints about dockless bikes “cluttering” the sidewalk by removing one parking space per block to install bike racks. But that’s not a reason not to do it, especially now that dockless is showing the latent demand for new ways to move around.

Just because dockless is a surefire way to get more bikes to more people doesn’t mean it should get off scot-free. Cities should fastidiously demand companies share their ridership data, and should hold operators to key performance indicators to keep bikes balanced and accessible. But shaping the behavior of bikeshare operators is, once again, incumbent on creating a built environment that makes more sense than ours do now.

After installing all those hypothetical bike racks, for example, a city could reasonably demand of an operator that a certain percentage of their fleet be balanced to public, on-street bike corrals at any given time. (This would have the added benefit of forcing operators to compete more directly with each other.) Fees per bike could fund the public-sector staff time dedicated to coordinating and overseeing dockless companies. While users seem to have little issue downloading and using multiple apps for multiple operators, a city could require app integration among operators if it felt it was an issue.

And so the bike share debate has brought us back to a familiar conversation. The bikeshare experiment has shown latent demand for access to multi-model transit options in car-dependent Dallas. That demand cannot be met by bikeshare companies alone. The city needs to step up and improve its bicycle infrastructure. The good news is the city didn’t waste money building a docked bikeshare. Now it needs to direct resources to taking back some space from the cars.