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Learning From Bike-Share Permit Requirements


On June 30, 2017, Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) released the first-in-the-nation bike-share permit requirement. On July 6th, SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) released their nine-page permit. Other cities also expressed interest in following a similar process.

These two permit requirements are a great starting point of a scalable solution to bringing dockless bike-share programs to all U.S. cities and entities. Here is my initial analysis based on previous transportation and planning experiences.

Not Your Typical Market Entry: For Bike-Sharing Startups, It Means Helping Cities Achieve Their Goals

Dockless bikes have had huge success in China, and there has been industry analysis and published reports done that show they are indeed a remedy to urban transportation issues.

However, U.S. cities have unique challenges: sprawling cities, reliance on cars, socioeconomic disparity, to name a few. To convince U.S. city officials, bike-share startups must give them concrete solutions to overcome these challenges.

Throughout the entire process, It is crucial to use data to show cities officials how bike-share can help cities achieve their urban planning goals. Trip and user data can be translated into the following main areas to achieve City’s KPI:

  • Sustainability:

  • Total distance of vehicle miles replaced by bikes

  • related fuel consumption, greenhouse gas and other pollution reduction targets

  • improved regional air quality

  • Social equity and economic mobility:

  • In Bay Area’s context, it could be money saved per household if choosing bike-share +Caltrain instead of driving, using Caltrain’s Commute Calculator (

  • Transportation:

  • Reduced congestions time

  • Increase in public transit ridership

  • Public health:

  • Trip length and distance converted to calories burned, lower obesity rate and cost on medical expenses and increased productivity

  • Local businesses:

  • Increased tax revenue as bike-friendly streets usually come along with slower traffic, and more pedestrian foot traffic

When working with cities, bike-share startups need to show genuine commitments in providing service in low-income neighborhoods, integrating with existing public transit network, and sharing data in a way that help a city achieve their urban planning goals.

(Screenshot from Plan Bay Area 2040 website, a planning initiative that all city officials are familiar with and bike-share startups can refer to published reports on there to match language)

The commitments to building a long-term partnership with cities should be reflected in product design.

Tech startups have the unique advantage of changing hundreds and millions of users’ daily life and transportation experience through meaningful product design.

The recently published bike permit requirements ask startups to submit images of mobile and web applications. However, so far, U.S. bike-sharing startup has not taken the step to translate their promise to comply with permit requirements into thoughtful design of the products.

Each cities have different requirements. And bikeshare operators should demonstrate in mobile and web app products that there have well-thought-out solutions address these concerns. For instance, there should be on-boarding design that informs users of safety and helmet laws (vary by jurisdiction), and maps that indicate proper bike parking locations, a function that incentivizes users who moved misplaced bikes, and a section for users to submit maintenance and service requests.

One idea is that bike-share startups can work with city GIS and planning department to show appropriate near bike parking places in map view. In the long term, successful bike-share operators can collaborate with mapping providers to have available bikes to show in the recommended routes.

(Image showing how mobile app on-boarding design impacts users' behavior. Credit: Chelsea Zhou)

Conclusion: Start Thinking Like an Urban Planner.

Cities are expecting a lot. Below are a small portion of SFMTA's permit requirements:

These are standard procedures in urban planning process managed and implemented by urban planners, but hardly anything tech startups are familiar with. Tech startups who are used to the ‘disruptive’ mentality can be turned off by the lengthy public process and layers of regulations. But it is exactly what sets those who can stay in the game for the long run apart from others. The more a bike-share startup can think like an urban planner, the closer it can hit home with cities they want to work with.

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