Friday, August 17, 2018

Why the City could regret dumping docked bikeshare

So Baltimore City thinks it can jump to the front  of the line and embrace dockless bikes and scooters after a miserable failure with docked bike-share. Will Baltimore's mobility problems go away by ditching the docks?
A future tied to BIRD Dockless electric scooters?

An answer requires a thorough analysis of what went wrong with Baltimore's traditional bike-share which, having been introduced a few years after other cities had gone through their learning curve, presumably benefited from those lessons. Alas, we proved unique and provider Bewegen, which by all accounts, runs the same bikes successfully in Birmingham, AL was kicked out of town. A lot went wrong with bike-share in Baltimore. We know that the majority of bikes was not in the docks or on the roads but at the bottom of the Harbor, stolen vandalized, or in a repair shop that never seemed to get ahead of its backlog. We also know that the app didn't show correctly where bikes were available and that the docks didn't withstand somebody intent on prying a bike out of its dock, even after all had been reinforced. We have an inkling that the system never carried itself, let alone made money and that most likely the private provider and the City lost a lot of dough in the process. These fragments of information do not represent a careful analysis of the successes and failures of the short life this system had here. Nor is a convincing explanation available, why Baltimore couldn't succeed with something that works in hundreds of other cities.

The City had been clearly annoyed by the way how Bewegen handled their bike share in Baltimore, and from what one can gather, Bewegen was equally frustrated with the City. With both being a party in a conflict, it isn't clear that the citizens will ever be able to truly know who is responsible for the poor outcomes.
Frivolous flooding of America's cities with Chinese capital: Dockless bikes

What one can easily see, though, is that the City's hasty embrace of BIRD, LIME and their dockless bikes and scooters has little to do that those providers manage their equipment any better or that a careful analysis showed clear advantages, nor that other cities had an excellent experience with dockless mobility in general, or those two players in particular. In fact, many cities expressed extreme annoyance with BIRD and especially with LIME for flooding their public spaces and the clutter and confusion this caused on sidewalks. It clearly seems that the City was primarily wooed by the fact that these dockless systems require neither planning nor money on the City side. DOT and the Mayor seem content with a few minimal requirements which are difficult to verify, such as equitable distribution of bikes and scooters in disinvested and red hot areas alike. Since users leave the mobility devices at their destinations, they inevitably cluster where the usage is the highest. That would be fine in a market economy based on demand, but it isn't fine in a city currently rightly glued to the equity lens.

As controversial and cynical as the debate about those electric scooters already is, with open invitations to dismember them or sink them in the Harbor, it is quite easy to imagine how the dockless devices will meet a similar fate here as their docked brethren.
In Venice and Santa Monica, where Bird is centralized, thousands of people live on the streets, which helps explain the scooter's popularity. With a press of a throttle button, one can be whizzing along, leaving it all in a blur. Bird calls this solving the "first/last mile" problem. Problem? Is it a problem for a twentysomething to walk a single mile? (LA Times Opinion)
If you think a bunch of electric scooters are the root of the Venice wealth gap and homelessness, you are deeply, deeply delusional. This is willfully ignorant, elitist drivel put up by a tired, cranky columnist in desperate need of a new lede. (Comment to the Opinion)
Where dockless bikes and scooters are common, complaints are plentiful about littered public spaces, endangerment of pedestrians and confusion about where scooters should be used. The electric scooters can easily be disabled by ripping the control board out which renders them non-usable and hard to find if the GPS locator has been discarded.

Europeans in their sluggish pace of embracing the latest trends and fads often come out ahead.  I used to find the German attitude towards Uber, in particular, quite annoying. (The service is hardly available anywhere since it was determined that Uber is a taxi service requiring licences). I haven't seen dockless scooters or bikes in Germany (they exist in Berlin and a few other places) and have no doubt, that all German cities already have a book of rules that makes it easy for cities to ban them.  But now, after Uber and Facebook have fallen out  of favor, the German authorities have the upper hand and are the ones collecting penalties, enacting privacy rules, imposing regulations and in general staying on top of the transportation network companies (TNCs). Generally, the tenor there seems to be that docked bikes are much easier to manage than dockless ones and cities don't seem eager to allow dockless bikes and scooters without scrutiny.
Solving transportation versus inducing demand: TNC's increase

Regulation-happy Germans and the inability of most US cities to manage the onslaught of new mobility technologies, both represent a lack of fantasy and creativity, making lawmakers equally incapable of managing the future.

Hardly any city has updated parking regulations for the likely complete collapse of demand for traditional self-parking in favor of fleet based dispatch logistics; or understands the spatial and planning implications of autonomous fleet vehicles for personal transport, freight or transit. There are even fewer municipal thoughts spent on drones or sidewalk robots making pizza or office supply deliveries. What do electric charging stations mean for parking or streetscape design? How TNCs need to dispatch their vehicles are not the topics on city council agendas or subject of the transportation element of masterplans even though these technologies will long be common before the masterplans expire.

As a result, New York and San Francisco have first been flooded by tens of thousands of Lyft and Uber cars and now with throusands of dockless bikes and scooters and are now scrambling to manage the damage. (New York announced strong restrictions on TNCs, San Francisco banned the scooters). The actual analysis of the problem is not coming from the affected cities, nor from the beneficiaries of the laisser fair attitude, i.e. the TNCs but was prepared by a former NYC deputy commissioner who is now a private consultant.
LIME bikes and scooter in Charlotte, NC

TNCs added 5.7 billion miles of driving in the nation’s nine largest metro areas at the same time that car ownership grew more rapidly than the population. (Schaller Consulting).
Baltimore, jumping now headlong into the dockless bike-scooter craze, has not come to terms with where scooters should ride (are they legal on sidewalks?), how they should be parked, at what speed they should be throttled when they have electric motors, who is responsible for dispatch and maintenance, nor has it imposed any kind of fee for usage of public space. Nor has it come to terms with Uber, Lyft  or the proliferation of private van and bus shuttles. It doesn't even have a convincing strategy for its own Circulator or water taxi. It must be possible to create win-win outcomes without just rolling over and let those private investors (lots of Chinese money behind dockless solutions) have their way. City planning, for example, would greatly benefit from access to the origin and destination data which the TNC's collect but not share. Why not charge license fees and require data sharing in return for a licence to use public space paid and maintained by tax dollars?

Unless Baltimore's DOT engages in a serious dialogue and with BIRD and LYME, learns from other cities and makes a comprehensive effort of studying mobility innovation and its implications, it will continue to simply react  to whatever crisis emerges. It is predictable that dockless bikes and scooters won't end Baltimore's last mile woes.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA    updated for additional links, language, the timeline and clarity

Related on this blog:

Finally movement in Bltimore's bikeshare
Late but real: Baltimore Bike Share
Baltimore Bikeshare under water?
Secrecy and mystery around Baltimore's second bike-share nosedive

other links: 

CityLab: What ends up on the Sidewalk

Baltimore Brew provides this helpful timeline as a year-by-year account:

• 2011 – Plans for a 250-bike program are hatched – then dropped – at a time when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is under fire for a budget that boosted downtown tourist activities while cutting recreation centers and other neighborhood services.

• 2012 – Rawlings-Blake enters into a bike share agreement with B-cycle  that requires the company to raise about $1.2 million in private funds to build the network. After the announcement, bike-sharing disappears into the maw of DOT bureaucracy and negotiations with B-cycle peter out.

• 2013 – The program pedals back to life thanks to $881,300 in federal funds. The money is to be used, in part, for start-up costs, and the program now has a new name, “Charm City Bikeshare.”

• 2014 – The city promises to launch the program after contracting with Alta Bike Share. But another setback comes when Alta’s supplier for the bikes’ software and the solar-powered kiosks goes bankrupt.

• 2014 – In come the consultants: Whitman, Requardt & Associates are paid $134,925 to look at the concept of a bike share program and help update the city’s bicycle master plan.

• 2015 – The city accepts a $2.1 million bid from Bewegen Technologies to start a bike share system. DOT rejects a much lower bid ($587,500 from Motivate International, formerly Alta Bike Shares) and a higher one (Zagster of Cambridge, Mass.).

• 2016 – Bewegen launches Baltimore Bike Share with fewer than 200 bicycles. (Its debut had been delayed by months because of what officials described as a manufacturer’s supply problem.)

• 2017 – A new mayor and a new set of problems, including poor maintenance and stolen bikes. Incoming DOT director Pourciau shuts down the program to install theft-resistant “Baltimore locks” and other improvements. Only about 50 bikes are in service when the program reopens.

• August 2018 – Pugh pulls the plug on Bike Share.

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