The Bike Share War Is Shaking Up Seattle Like Nowhere Else

Sean Healy was driving for Uber in Seattle when a passenger offered him an intriguing task. It wasn’t the first time a rider had proposed a new line of work; in the bustling tech scene in Seattle, his passengers often seemed to be scouting for people to hire . But last summertime, the person or persons in the backseat of his family’s minivan was the general manager of a company called Ofo.

The man pitched Healy on a new gig-economy job transporting bikes around the city. The work itself sounded just so-so, but the man painted it as something bigger–a vision of a new kind of city, with fewer autoes clogging the landscape and a metropolis stimulated safe for people on two wheels. Kind of like Europe. “He seemed like a decent guy, ” tells Healy, 33. “He wanted to do things that were not just environmentally sustainable but ethically sustainable.”

Ofo &# x27; s business is dockless bike sharing, and it was about to launch its US operations in Seattle. Dockless bike share is just the latest of a dozen new approaches to urban mobility in increasingly congested cities. Ride-hailing services, app-powered carpools, on-demand car rentals, electric bikes, scooters, and even self-driving taxis are all jockeying for riders on the street of American cities. Together the objective is reinventing the route we navigate urban environments, reducing private vehicle usage, improving traffic and commute times, and cutting emissions.

But where alternatives to vehicle ownership are well-established in the US &# x27; s major metropolises, bike shares are still procuring their niche. Paris, London, and New York have all adopted bike share programs that use docks, bulky stations that are built into parking spaces that dictate where the bikes &# x27; users must start and end rides. Though they cost a fraction of a traditionally bred, multibillion-dollar transit project, the stations are still expensive to install and preserve, and their fixed locatings restriction the number of riders they can attract.

What makes a dockless motorcycle share program appealing is that, beyond the bikes themselves, it doesn &# x27; t require any infrastructure. With nothing to build, a city can introduce a new way of getting around virtually overnight. A smartphone app tells users where inexpensive, GPS-enabled motorcycles are located and lets them rent one. Upon arriving at a destination, a rider simply leaves the self-locking bike there for the next user. Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and several small Florida cities, among other places, have all espoused small dockless bike share programs.

Seattle could use a transportation reboot. The home of a thriving tech sector, Seattle is a fast-growing city and home to some of the country &# x27; s worst traffic. Last year, when it decided to give dockless bikes a chance, it didn &# x27; t have a bike share program of any kind. Success here could set up dockless motorcycle share for a nationwide roll-out. Failing could mean more cars, more fumes, and more traffic jam for all. But what seemed on the surface like an easy win ended up disclosing the limitations of a startup-led revolution. As Seattle residents detected, merely because the city could get bikes on the street with little investment didn &# x27; t entail it should.

When dockless bike share began in Chinese cities three years ago, the downsides of the idea soon became apparent. Tens of thousands of transgressed or stranded bikes littered those cities before their governments cracked down, impounding bikes and defining limits on their employ. Seattle &# x27; s Department of Transportation wanted to avoid that mess.

So last July, the city allowed three companies–Ofo, LimeBike, and Spin–to deploy up to 4,000 bikes each in a six-month trial, in return for a spate of data about their customers and operations. Seattle planners wanted to understand in granular detail how the systems would work, and how its citizens would use them. Now the data is in, much of it sourced by WIRED through a series of public records requests.

Seattleites have taken to dockless bike sharing like nowhere else in the country. Not merely does Seattle have nearly a one-quarter of all the nation &# x27; s dockless bikes, its bikes get three times the usage of those elsewhere in the US. More than 350,000 riders have encompassed more than a million miles in the strategy &# x27; s first five months, and 74 percentage of the town is in favor of them, according to a transportation department survey. Three-quarters of rides are being used to access public transit, helping to fill in the gaps left by those established systems.

When Healy started his new gig in September, he was tasked with resulting a team of workers redistributing Ofo &# x27; s bright yellow bikes around the city and bring back injury bicycles for mend. Motorcycles can pile up at popular destinations, block sidewalks, or end up stranded in low-traffic parts of town. Healy &# x27; s job was to keep the motorcycles deployed in the places where they are most likely to get utilized, and prevent them from becoming a menace to the city.

At first, he loved his run. An engineering student with four children and who built a basic ion thruster for satellites for fun, Healy employed the work to cover his bills while taking classes. Not only was he helping to bringing a inexpensive, healthy transportation option to Seattle, he liked the company itself. Ofo was hiring people with housing and craving challenges through a local job charity. “My manager was taking people from the bottom, helping them to grow, ” Healy says.

But a few months later, that director was promoted, and things started to change. The three companies selected by Seattle were in the thick of a price war to seduce more riders. Every bike company has an internal objective, the number of rides per bike per day, that it uses to woo investors and predict future earnings. While the companies were expanding in Seattle, they did everything they could to reached that figure–including regularly driving down the cost of a ride to zero. To attract and retain riders, the companies had to make sure their bikes were always available where customers looked for them. Keeping squads like Healy &# x27; s in constant motion became essential to the program &# x27; s success.

Healy noticed that Ofo kept deploying more and more bikes. “They weren &# x27; t hiding their strategy, which was to overrun the city, ” he says. “They wanted a motorcycle on every corner.” The work was hard, involving lifting the 42 -pound bikes into and out of vans many times a day, he remembers. Workers rode in the back of the van alongside poorly secured motorcycles, and they lacked protective gloves.

Eventually, the pressure to keep deploying bikes to desirable locations led to a new rule, Healy tells: Poorly damaged bikes would no longer be painstakingly cannibalized for components but simply thrown out. “I wondered, why are we working to save the Earth with motorcycle share if we &# x27; re just going to create more trash? ” he tells.( Ofo says that irreparably injury bicycles are now recycled .)

The thousands of new bikes in circulation unavoidably led to conflict with residents. According to the feedback collected by Seattle &# x27; s transportation department, vehicle owners are blaming shared bikes for scraping their vehicles. Residents are peeved that unsightly bikes are clogging up sidewalks, parks, and driveways, constructing the streets less navigable for pedestrians and riling local industries. Vandals have been systematically cutting brake cables of bikes from all three companies. Some activists are now trying to oust the bike companies.

Dockless bike share was meant to be the opposite of Uber–green, healthy, equitable, and affordable. But as 10,000 new motorcycles sprawl over the city, Seattle &# x27; s latest transport revolution is pitting residents against one another, with the programs &# x27; fans and foes arguing over its effect on the city. Seattle residents want access to bikes, that much is clear–but couldn &# x27; t the bikes be just a little less annoying?

For Seattle, a bike share program was a gamble from the beginning. One year earlier, a different attempt at a bike share had failed in this hilly, drizzly city. Between 2014 and 2017, a nonprofit called Pronto operated a docked motorcycle share program in Seattle that got pretty much everything wrong. It installed too few stations, which were located away from motorcycle tracks and tourist attractions. Rides were expensive and necessitated a helmet sourced from unappealing communal bins. The program launched just as the climate turned at the end of a glorious summertime, dooming it to a slow start.

There are currently no penalties for riders who violate the parking rules for Seattle’s dockless motorcycles, such as blocking a sidewalk.

Jenny Riffle

When Pronto went bust in early 2016, the city bought it but changed little about its operation. Early last year, Seattle decided to cut its losses and close Pronto down. “Seattle has this love-hate relationship with bikes, ” says Andrew Glass-Hastings, director of transit and mobility at the Seattle Department of Transportation. Despite a mild climate, decent cycling infrastructure, and traffic jams among the worst in the world, only about 3 percent of passengers used a motorcycle to get to work in 2017. By contrast, 62 percentage of passengers in the world &# x27; s top cycling city, Copenhagen, ride to work. Some Seattle residents blame the rainfall, others the hills or a tough helmet law.

But maybe they were just waiting for something cheaper, simpler, and more convenient. Around that same time, dockless bike share programs were starting to take off in cities outside the US. Ofo was one of the first companies to find early success in this market. In 2014, members of the Peking University cycling club started a campus project they called Ofo, select because the word looks like a cyclist. The notion was that some students would share their motorcycles with others who would pay to use them, but the founders soon realized their fellow students were more interested in conveniently renting bikes than sharing their own.

In a world of carbon fiber frames and electric motors, Ofo &# x27; s heavy steel bikes were lumbering and basic. The company &# x27; s invention was to package the entire tracking and rental system on the bike itself. A solar-powered unit mounted on the rear wheel powered a cellular connection, GPS receiver, and lock. When a user scanned a unique QR code on the motorcycle &# x27; s frame utilizing a smartphone app, the system would send an unlock signal to the motorcycle and charge the rider &# x27; s credit card.

Ofo was an immediate success. From its launch in 2015 with 20,000 bikes in Beijing, it now operates more than 10 million bicycles in more than 250 cities globally. If it has taken you 10 minutes to read this far, another one-quarter of a million people have taken one of its yellow bikes for a spin. That scale and speed of growth caught the attention of Didi Chuxing, Alibaba, and others, who have Ofo with more than$ 2 billion in funding. Soon, other dockless bike share companies popped up: Chinese copycat Mobike, bankrolled by Alibaba rival Tencent, claimed responsibility for the world &# x27; s biggest dockless operator. In the US, dockless bike share companies include Spin, LimeBike, and Jump( which was acquired by Uber ).

“When Pronto shut down, we found ourselves the largest city in the country without a bike share system, ” tells Glass-Hastings, which he tells created ripe conditions for a dockless company to step in. Once Ofo, Spin, and LimeBike began offering rides expensing just$ 1 for 30 minutes( or longer, in some cases) last July, the program instantly outstripped Pronto both in volume and in trips per bike. As the summer turned to fall, the number of riders climbed steadily, topping 4,000 in October before the rains caused it to slump.

Even with the drizzle, by December, dockless bike share riders had covered more than a million miles. If all those rides had replaced automobile journeys, around 400 fewer tons of carbon dioxide would have been emitted, to say nothing of the time and emissions saved by alleviating congestion on the roads.

The pilot program is now officially in an evaluation stage, and Glass-Hastings hinted strongly that the transportation department will recommend that it continue when the present permits expire in July. “For the first time, Capitol Hill recently ran out of motorcycles, ” he says of a popular downtown neighborhood. “There is a great deal of pent-up demand. It &# x27; s actually rewarding to assure people use a system that is a great addition to the transportation system at virtually zero cost to the city. It &# x27; s been a win-win.”

The dockless motorcycles have equally passionate critics, however. As head of Washington nation &# x27; s Department of Transportation from 2001 to 2007, Doug McDonald &# x27; s job was all about keeping his part of the country moving. Now retired and living in Seattle, McDonald is described as a pedestrian activist. He has long been fighting a campaign against a city regulation that allows cyclists on sidewalks.

Doug McDonald has been sending several photos a day of badly parked dockless motorcycles to Seattle’s transportation department.

Jenny Riffle

The arrival of dockless motorcycle share get McDonald even more worked up. “If you watch people on yellow motorcycles, they tend to be inexperienced cyclists. There is crazy weaving in and out, ” he says. “And whatever profit comes from lending public rights of way to the bikeshare companies, Seattle get not a dime. That &# x27; s why my hair is on fire.”

He determines the idea that there &# x27; s no cost to the city ridiculous. “That dismisses the cost to everybody for whom the bicycles are in the way or an annoyance, ” he says. Full safety statistics have not been made available, but the city says that five crashes with pedestrians were reported during the program. McDonald himself sends about five paintings a day of poorly parked dockless bikes to Seattle &# x27; s transportation department, and he regularly fires off emails debating the finer phases of city and nation laws on who has the right of way.

McDonald is the most outspoken of the program &# x27; s critics, but he is not the only one. “The entire city is starting to look like the backyard of ill-behaved 7-year-olds who refuse to pick up after themselves, ” reads one complaint filed to the city in early September. Another one read, “It is as if the main priority in Seattle now is to be sure that no one ever has to be farther than a half-block from a motorcycle. Must we remain a nursery school for entitled infants? “

Defenders of Seattle &# x27; s parks–the city &# x27; s natural gems( Seattle expends more than three times as much on parks and recreation per capita than New York City or Washington, DC )– also take issue with the motorcycles. “I see motorcycles by all three companies parked haphazardly all over[ Discovery] Park – — blocking roads, crushing native plants, etc, ” reads a complaint from December. “What is the city doing to ensure these companies and their customers follow city regulations? “

In September, a LimeBike employee got into an altercation outside a downtown coffeehouse when falling off motorcycles, according to another grievance. When construction workers from the coffeehouse tackled the worker about the bikes parked out front, the LimeBike operative told him that moving a motorcycle was a misdemeanour and that he would be charged if he did.( The city told LimeBike that this was incorrect and “unacceptable” behaviour ).

The city’s rules on where to park these motorcycles are strict and clear. Bikes should not be left on corners, driveways, or ramps , nor blocking building entryways, benches, bus stops, or fire hydrants, and they should always leave six feet clear for pedestrians on sidewalks. Companies have two hours to move motorcycles that are reported as being incorrectly parked. But while the smartphone apps communicate these restrictions to users , nothing avoids riders from leaving a motorcycle wherever they want , nor are there currently any penalties for doing so.

Bikes started to pile up at popular places like the ferry dock and light rail stations, clogging up the walkways and stymie passengers. They were also presenting up in more worrying places. Bikes left in the road were getting hit by automobiles, and a mangled Spin bike was procured near a develop track, presumably damaged by a happen locomotive.

Mike Hemion, a diver, has been determining bikes in the water on a regular basis.

Jenny Riffle

They were also getting tossed into lakes. “As soon as I ensure the motorcycles on the roads, that same week we started insuring them in the water, ” says scuba instructor Mike Hemion, who teaches commercial divers in Seattle &# x27; s bays and ponds. “Three out of four times when we dive downtown on the waterfront now, there &# x27; s a bike in the water.” In the early days of these water retrievals, workers were expected to fish them out themselves; LimeBike workers even cobbled together a makeshift grappling hook to snare them. Now the three bike share companies merely call Hemion.

The three dockless bike startups bellow Hemion when they need their motorcycles retrieved.

Jenny Riffle

McDonald believes expanding the fleets, and especially the addition of electric bikes( LimeBike has already replaced nearly half of its manual motorcycles with ebikes ), will merely stimulate matters worse. “I think there &# x27; s going to be a bad, bad collision, ” he says. McDonald wants to tie approval of future dockless permits to a new regulation banning all motorcycles from sidewalks, saying, “The stink I &# x27; ve built is going to get bigger.”

For the companies themselves, gaining significant riderships in Seattle has come at a cost. LimeBike and Spin have significantly less investor cash in their coffers than Ofo. But even the Chinese company &# x27; s billions might not last eternally in an all-out cost war. Although all three dockless motorcycle companies in Seattle officially charge at the least$ 1 per ride, the average cost has probably been closer to zero. The companies give out free rides to new customers, and Ofo has recently been started charging riders at all. In Singapore, Ofo riders can even earn cryptocurrency with every ride.

LimeBike has been attempting to seduce riders with a range of incentives it calls Bonus Bikes, which unlock free rides and( for a while) entered users into a drawing for a free iPhone X. Spin has shunned price cuts so far–and has probably suffered for it. The smallest of the three, Spin has deployed around 2,000 motorcycles in Seattle, only half as many as its challengers. “We &# x27; re not here to ride a hype develop, ” says CEO Derrick Ko. “We want to be a permanent fixture in the US.”

To get there, it will need to attract many more riders. A Spin document, submitted for a new motorcycle share scheme, says the company has a target of two rides per bike per day, “a level at which bikes are adequately available to riders and the organizations of the system can operate profitably.” However, city data shows that Seattle users only briefly reached that number, during warmer months. Its average over the pilot was 0.84 rides per motorcycle per day–and the US average for dockless companies was a meagre 0.3 last year.

The tight competition has put a strain on the three companies &# x27; street squads, like the one run by Sean Healy. They start early in the morning and work well into the night, moving bikes around the city. According to an Ofo document, the company rebalances about 10 percentage of its fleet — 400 bikes–every day.

One day, while moving a new bike, Healy sliced his thumbs on a metal edge. “It was razor sharp and cut right into my hand, ” he says. “There was no Band-Aid , no first aid kit , no procedure. I got fired up.” He was beginning to notice the other ways Ofo seemed to be cutting corners on security. At that time the company had defined a goal of deploying 310 bikes each day, which entailed moving dozens of motorcycles at a time per vehicle. “We were working fairly hard, ” Healy says. “Lifting, widening your arms, lowering motorcycles off a truck 60 periods. One guy injured his back doing that because we were doing so many. We weren &# x27; t thinking about ergonomics, we weren &# x27; t thinking about safety.”

Ofo says that all the workers, even the ones like Healy who were recruited elsewhere, were actually employees of the homeless charity, which the company says was responsible for providing their protective equipment. The charity says that it is now gloves and other protective gear, although it remains Ofo’s responsibility to ensure the workplace itself is not hazardous.

The more Healy thought about it, the more his view of the company, especially its therapy of its disadvantaged workers, changed. What had seemed like a socially conscious move was seeming more and more to him like exploitation. “There was a power dynamic here, ” says Healy. “This was a billion-dollar company and these guys off the streets couldn &# x27; t get gloves? “

In December, he staged a walkout to protest the working conditions. Although none of his homeless coworkers joined in( for fear of losing their jobs, according to Healy ), social media coverage of his action forced some changes. The employment charity conducted a safety audit of Ofo in January. It would not say whether it discovered any problems, merely that it provided Ofo with recommendations on best safety practises. Ofo complied. Employees no longer ride in the back of vans with unsecured motorcycles, and the company now renders personal protective equipment like gloves and offers security workshops.

Healy, however, has gone back to driving for Uber.

The dockless bike share companies faced their biggest showdown with the University of Washington. Yet that altercation also led to a possible solution that could help the bikes coexist peacefully on mobbed city streets, in Seattle and beyond.

Tensions with the university’s Seattle campus first arose over Ofo employees using its bathrooms, so the company instructed its workers to stop relieving themselves on campus. Then, in November, the university banned Ofo altogether from dropping off motorcycles on its grounds. Early this year, the school revised its position and decided to start charging companies for the privilege of serving its students and staff. It lately put under a request for proposals for bike share schemes that went with strict contractual terms. They include offering a 50 percentage discount on campus and allowing the university to confiscate any bike “at any time for any reason or for no reason.”

A key requirement of the university, which all three companies agreed to, is to set up geo-fences to force bikes to be parked only in permitted regions. If a motorcycle &# x27; s GPS senses it is being locked outside an authorized area, the app will alert the user. Spin and LimeBike said they might impose a fine on riders who disobey, and all three said they would restrict or even ban habitual bad parkers. Good behavior, on the other hand, could be rewarded with free rides. “We are currently testing a carrots/ sticks approach for smart parking, including bonuses for parking in a preferred locating, ” wrote LimeBike in its response to the university. All the companies agreed to a one-hour response time for poorly parked bikes, at the university &# x27; s command.

They also agreed to pay the university for operating on campus, albeit at different rates. LimeBike suggested an annual$ 5 per motorcycle fee to encompas the university &# x27; s costs for managing the parking infrastructure and other aspects of the scheme. Spin proposed handing over 10 percent of net profits; Ofo was more generous, offering 10 percent of its revenue from rentals on campus. The university tells it is still negotiating the contracts but hopes to sign them soon.

The school’s negotiations with the three companies stand in contrast to the adversarial relations that cities and new transportation networks have fallen into in recent years. If a city tries to impose restrictions on Uber and Lyft, for example, they threaten to leave, as was the case in Austin, Houston, Quebec, and Seattle.( In Austin, the companies followed through on their promise and left .) Banning new services, as San Francisco recently did with electric scooters, entails losing any benefits they also bring.

Yet the willingness–even eagerness–of Seattle &# x27; s three dockless bike sharing companies to enter into expensive and restrictive agreements with the University suggests that another way is possible. Instead of squeezing into gaps between the rules, these companies are entering into operational and financial the partnership agreement with a jurisdiction, albeit a small one.

“It &# x27; s a good sign that public entities are enter into negotiations with private services that are using the public right of way, ” says Jennifer Dill, professor of Urban Study and Scheming at Portland State University. “Most cities did not do so with ride-hailing services. But it &# x27; s a fast-changing scenery. If companies consolidate or the economic model changes, so could the agreements.”

Some people are always going to ride too fast on sidewalks, park in front of bus stops or hurl bikes into lagoons. Agreements holding companies accountable for the dorks who use their services assist deter those behaviours, while revenue sharing gives cities the resources to deal with other issues that emerge–and defend against accusations of selling off the public realm. Seattle has collected the data showing that people want dockless bike sharing. Now, it also has evidence that companies are willing to bear responsibility for its drawbacks, putting the city in the perfect position to drive a harder bargain for its permanent program. If it runs, it could provide a model for other cities around the world struggling to adapt to new transportation platforms.

But whether Seattle’s program gets extended, rewritten, or killed outright, Mike Hemion pictures a busy few months ahead. “In the summer, almost every other day we dive, we find a motorcycle, ” he tells. He doesn &# x27; t seem to intellect. “The bikes are pretty cool. I use them all the time myself.”

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