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dockless bikes

Dallas ends its scooter experiment

Over in Dallas, never started in Houston.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Tis better to have scootered and stopped than to have never scootered at all.

That is the consensus of a handful of Houston proponents of rental scooters as they watched Dallas this week order companies to pull the devices from local streets, citing crime and other issues with their use.

“We have received complaints about scooters and would like to make substantial changes to the scooter program,” said Dallas Transportation Director Mike Rogers, in a statement. “The changes will include public safety considerations so that the city may have safe modes of alternative transportation.”

Companies have flooded some cities with scooters people can rent by the minute with a smartphone app, part of a growing micro-mobility movement. Users can grab a scooter, motor to wherever they are going within a few blocks or miles and simply leave the scooter for the next person. Advocates say the scooters reduce car travel while making moving outdoors in inhospitable places — like scorching Texas — possible.

Critics call the scooters mobile clutter, complaining they crowd sidewalks and pose a safety hazard to pedestrians and riders.

That is the point Dallas hit earlier this week. City officials told Bird, Spin, Jump and any other companies still out there to cease operations on Wednesday and remove all the scooters by Friday, bringing an end to a popular but contentious debate about dockless devices and local transportation, for now.

It is a debate Houston mostly has avoided simply by doing nothing. Regulations in Houston make deploying the scooters murky at best — much as companies such as Uber and Lyft began operating in a cloud of uncertainty related to taxi rules. The consensus was Houston’s regulations would need to be changed before scooters hit the streets for rent.

Houston was an outlier in Texas in not having scooters. Dallas and Austin were both fertile markets for the devices, at least until COVID significantly upended the business and some of the companies collapsed or cut back. San Antonio finalized its agreement with the companies in January after 10 months of public discussion, allowing Razor and Bird to deploy up to 1,000 scooters each.

[…]

Houston officials said scooter regulations remain possible, but are not a high priority compared to such efforts as Vision Zero to eliminate roadway deaths. .

“The city’s focus right now is on implementing Vision Zero and adding bike lanes across the city,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. “At this time, a program is not under consideration but we are studying it and trying to figure out how it could safely work.”

Officials also are working through a number of transportation-related rule changes, including specific prohibitions and greater enforcement of illegal parking in bike lanes.

Meanwhile, use of Houston’s B-Cycle system is booming during the pandemic as bike-sharing officials ready for more expansion, including 100 new e-bikes that bring their own challenges related to trail safety.

Until I saw this headline earlier in the week, I’d completely forgotten that just over a year ago it looked like scooters, or at least some proposed scooter regulations, were about to debut in Houston. Crazy how things can change, huh? Scooters may have failed in Dallas, but they remain a success in San Antonio, as long as they keep off the sidewalk. We can only speculate at this point what their fate might have been in Houston if Lime and Bird and the rest had simply taken the Uber/Lyft approach and invaded the city first, letting the regulatory issues sort themselves out later.

Honestly, I think the main reason why scooters have taken a back seat in Houston is that the city’s attention has been much more on bikes and expanding bicycle infrastructure. B-Cycle has been successful and continues to expand, while Dallas tried and failed to go with dockless bike sharing. The city of Houston, along with Harris County and the Bayou Greenway Initiative, has been busy building out its bike infrastructure, which by the way is off limits to scooters as they are not people-powered. Also, too, we do have electric bikes in the pipeline, and they pretty much serve the same transportational niche as scooters.

So maybe this is a lot of fuss about nothing much. Or maybe the problem was that the scooter business model doesn’t necessarily work everywhere, and perhaps Dallas and eventually Houston would be served better by a non-profit scooter rental system like B-Cycle. I mean, if it really is about solving a people-moving problem that enables mobility without cars, then it shouldn’t matter what the entity behind the scooters is. I’ve said all along, I’m happy that other cities have taken the lead in working out all the kinks in this process before it comes to Houston, so my thanks to the people of Big D for their service. The Dallas Observer has more.

“The Rise and Fall of Dockless Bike Sharing in Dallas”

Amazing story.

Several dockless bike-share companies first converged on Dallas last August after promising local officials that their services would come at no cost to taxpayers, and the impact was immediate. The dockless feature allowed bike-share companies to distribute its fleet untethered and controlled by apps. By February, the presence of five bike share companies (VBike, Spin, LimeBike and Beijing-based companies Ofo and Mobike) had transformed Dallas from the largest American city without a bike-share system to the city boasting the largest fleet in North America—a whopping 18,000 bikes, way more than New York City’s 12,000 or Seattle’s 10,000—and Dallas was deemed the “bike-share capital of America” by D Magazine. “Let’s not screw this up,” they warned in February.

But it was clear from the beginning that the program was growing way too big and way too fast. The city reported in February that it had received thousands of comments regarding its dockless bike-share program through its 311 phone number for constiuents, with commenters complaining about bikes that were vandalized, left behind in neighborhoods for extended periods, blocking sidewalks, or mounting in “excessive” numbers. “Some of the bikes are left for days, weeks, or months, in some cases without being moved,” Jared White, who manages alternative transportation in the Dallas Department of Transportation, told CNN in February.

“It’s making people a little bit hostile,” Fran Badgett, the owner of Transit Bicycle Company in Dallas, also told CNN. “From my front door you can see about 200 bikes. Not a single one is parked in a way I’d call respectful or helpful.”

In March, the Wall Street Journal wrote that Dallas was “ground zero for a nascent national bike-share war,” as bike-share companies stormed cities across the country in the past year or so, hoping to capitalize on a booming new business while simultaneously flooding the market beyond sustainability. Companies operating in Washington, D.C. have lost half their fleet due to theft. One dockless company recently pulled out of France, citing the “mass destruction” of its bikes. In China, oversupply led to absurd, mountain-like heaps of discarded bikes. Just a few weeks into its dockless pilot program, New Yorkers are already complaining about dockless bikes requiring maintenance and clogging city sidewalks. Some cities have responded by implementing regulations, like capping the number of bikes that companies can have in the streets, or clearly demarcating curb space designated for dockless bikes.

Rarely have these systems failed with as much gusto as the one in Dallas.

[…]

The bike-share business was so poorly regulated and the public reaction was so overwhelmingly caustic that Dallas’s city council was eventually forced into action, unanimously approving an ordinance in June that requires bike-share companies to pay the city $808 for a permit to operate, plus an additional $21 for each bike in their fleet. The bike companies will now be responsible for responding to 311 complaints of bikes that are blocking sidewalks or have fallen over, too—they have two hours after each complaint to clean up the mess themselves. The council also forced the companies to fork over more specific ridership data to get a better sense of where and when people are riding dockless bikes.

You need to click over to see the pictures, if nothing else. It boggles my mind how any of this could be coexistent with a viable business plan – these two stories, linked in the TM piece, helped answer some of my questions – but the bike companies Did Not Like It when the city got involved. All I can say is that I now appreciate the implementation and managed growth of B-Cycle here in Houston that much more.