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Bike-sharing in the U.S.: is it another clash between technologists and urbanists?

(Screenshot from Lime Bike's How-To video)

(Screenshot from Lime Bike's How-To video)

Investors are pouring money in bike sharing apps in the US after they’ve observed the success of such apps in China, and they are investing, hoping that the success will play out in the US, but there are particular obstacles to overcome that China does not have.

It is not the first time when tech companies become interested in changing how cities work. But it gets complicated when virtual meets the reality. Dan Doctoroff of Google Sidewalk Lab has admitted that he underestimated the complexity of cities, and although both hoping to improve cities, technologists and traditional urbanists (planners and policy makers) do not seem to understand each other.

Urban challenges

The challenges of bike sharing apps in the US are the same as challenges to cities: broken public transportation system, reliance on cars, urban poverty, public safety concern etc.. Therefore, dockless stations might work better than have stations as one can avoid making wrong investments in have stations in the wrong place;

Bike commuters only represent about 1 percent of population in the US. Attracting and attaining bike riders (users) are the same as solving transportation and land use problems in the US, where unlike China, things are way more spreaded out and people rely on driving to get to most places unless it is absolutely unfeasible to do so. So, this requires a reverse way of thinking: what are the scenarios in the US that require someone to absolutely abandon the car? And starting from there is how to capture users.

So spreading out too thin is not a good idea. Target high pedestrian activity zones, such as school districts, college campuses, downtown business development areas, large events, and public transit hubs. Meanwhile, distinguish two types of bike users: commuters and leisure riders. Commuters generally follow the same Origin-Destination and reverse pattern on weekdays, whereas leisure riders exhibit random but cluttered pattern within areas with high concentration of restaurants, cafes and commerce. So focusing on getting commuter-users to the major transportation stations requires a different strategy than helping leisure-riders to coffee shops and concerts.

Regulatory landscape
(Illustration provided by City of Seattle to illustrate that bikes in such programs should park in the Landscape/Furniture Zone.)

Normally, cities publish bike master plans that can be helpful to focus on areas that also are selected as high priority bike corridors. These selections reflect the analysis of urban planners and the input from general public.

Many cities have put lot of work in bike master planning, but lack of funding from public sector puts plan on hold; VC/private sector investment can push plans forward, so understanding local planning priority and regulations is not the same as doing due diligence, but by doing so we are borrowing from previous effort and aligning goals with those set by the local governments, who can make or break the programs.

Again, a bad local government relation can destroy a program, while a good and long-standing relation with the local community can go a long way. Motivate has been really smart and helped Ford GoBike build a good relation with MTC. They will launch in late June, have a full-fledged social equity and public transit integration program in SF, East Bay and San Jose. This reflects tremendous amount of work behind the scene to get the green lights from local government, because these agencies are often more proactive in areas of regulating instead of collaborating. A few examples:

  • SFMTC Sustainable Streets Division:

  • SFMTC now requires a permit approved by Director of Transportation for dockless bike sharing program to operate starting March 2917

  • Requires public meeting, definition of parking penalty and dockless station

  • Matching code revisions and justify how such programs meet City’s goals

  • NACTO:

  • NACTO is an influential national transportation alliance made of 51 major cities; has been conservative on autonomous vehicles and now on dockless bike stations

  • But, it also represents concerns usually dismissed by the technologists

Working with regulators and urbanists

Public agencies prioritize public interest, so we need need a different approach than marketing for consumers because population in the US relying on bike as major mode of transportation are less than one percent. Check Janette Sadik-Kahn to study languages used by cities officials; establish a starting point of conversation by using the same language.

One can also turn o turn local regulators from adversaries into partners by focusing on social equity, Integration with regional transit, placing stations in MTC/Planning department-designated areas of concerns, and Works with MTC/local transportation and planning agencies on outreach effort to low-income residents with english as second language.

Also, a company can use design and branding to address fears that dockless bikes will clutter local sidewalks and creating hazards to pedestrians. Branding and design for bike-sharing apps are never just about aesthetics, and the app should embody inspirational messages on a more profound level beyond personal fitness and health, as to reiterate the benefits of biking. To start, one can look at:

  • Urban planning precedents on how bike-friendly streets bring more profits to local businesses

  • How bike-friendly streets slow down traffic and lower traffic fatality rates: slow traffic = traffic safety (Vision Zero)

  • How biking help cities reach CO2 and other GHG emission reduction KPIs

  • Borrow existing research case studies on like Copenhagen bike and street designs

  • Gen Gehl: life between buildings. Remember, bike riding is ALWAYS an alternative mode of transportation in the US, so requires constant educating and marketing.

These also are the factors that local stakeholders deeply care about. So including such messages will assure local stakeholders that a bike-sharing startup’s intention goes beyond private interests.

In Closing

(Bike and Street Design Guidelines proposed by NACTO and CalTrans)

Whether bike-sharing apps in the US can disrupt urban transportation like Uber and Lyft is up to debate, because Uber and Lyft still rely on private vehicles: a transportation mode that Americans are most comfortable with. Meanwhile, whether one can gain the competitive edge in the bike-sharing startup wars in the US is largely depending on relation with local stakeholders.

Recently, SFMTC worked with Motivate and Ford GoBike to launch a long-term bike-sharing partnership in San Francisco, East Bay and San Jose, with a focus on social equity programs, public transit integration and big data sharing. As someone from traditional planning and design background, I think technology aside, whoever that understands the real demand the local community and knows how to build long-term relationship with the local stakeholders will win.

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