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Dock-less Bikeshare Programs in Dire Need of Formal Oversight and Safety Assurances, Researchers Say

A “corral” of dock-less bicycles in Seattle. Image courtesy of Wired Magazine, 2018.

Cities are in the midst of a mobility revolution, led in part by a boom in app-based, dock-less bike share platforms that allow residents and tourists alike to rent and ride a bicycle in virtually any location in the city and end their ride wherever they choose. Dock-less bike share programs are active in nearly every large city in the U.S., and have grown tremendously in scale and format over the past two years. Nevertheless, many city governments have no written ordinance to regulate these programs and their impacts on riders. This represents a critical error on the part of city officials, according to a research team at the Center for Transportation Equity, Decisions, and Dollars, a University Transportation Center housed at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“These dock-less bike share programs are all over America these days, but there’s almost no regulation of their safety or equity standards,” says Dr. James Wood, who led the study. “For many cities that host dock-less systems, it’s the Wild West and nobody knows where to start making rules.”

Wood’s team analyzed 55 of America’s largest cities with active bike share programs and found over half of them had no written ordinance to manage bike share. And in the cities that did have an ordinance, many were vaguely-written and silent on issues of rider safety, social equity, or integration of bike share into the broader bike-ped network in cities.

“There are no best practices for how to regulate these dock-less bikes,” Wood adds. “Cities borrow a little from each other, but they mostly improvise based on what they see locally and maybe what they most fear might happen.”

On this last point, Wood and his team note that the one element that seems most common among city bike share ordinances is language protecting the city government from lawsuits related to bike share injury or collisions.

“Bikeshare riders are in most cases not required to use a helmet, and virtually no bike share providers offer a helmet to rent alongside a bicycle,” according to Samantha Bradley, a researcher on Wood’s team. “Cities see this as a huge legal liability if and when a rider is injured, so they have to be very clear who owns the bicycle and who is ultimately at fault in an incident.”

Wood and his team contend that cities’ failure to regulate dock-less bike-share platforms is reversible, but a symptom of a broader trend they have seen in city governments: Regulating something only after it becomes a hindrance to city functions or the public welfare.

“Planners saw the same thing with Uber a few years ago, and with Airbnb as well,” Wood says. “These exciting new things show up in our cities, and regulators barely have time to ask questions, let alone craft a thorough and rigorous ordinance, before the innovations start causing complications. They really need to break out of this mindset and get ahead of the next crisis.”

The team is integrating their full database of findings into a guidebook of regulatory actions, which they will distribute nationally to city governments and metropolitan planning organizations presently grappling with how best to balance the risks and potential of dock-less bike share programs. The guidebook will include examples from cities that have crafted particularly detailed ordinances and guidelines and will offer a multitude of suggestions and ideas for cities on how best to create a fair but solid regulatory framework for the bike share programs operating on their streets.