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The Rogue Biking Revolution


China has always been a nation of cyclists. First adopted as a mode of transportation in rural areas where cars were scarce, bicycles soon spread to cities where traffic congestion and pollution made them an attractive alternative to motor vehicles. Bike share programs became popular in China, and as of 2011 China had two of the biggest bike-share systems in the world. By 2013, China had 13 of the 15 largest bike share programs in the world.

Not content with its leading role in station-based bike share programs, China once again revolutionized the transportation industry with the dockless bike share system, which allows cyclists to lock and unlock bikes with an app, and pick up and leave bikes wherever, whenever. Credited with adding millions more bikes—and riders—to the revolution, dockless bikes are also faulted with littering China’s landscape and public spaces with damaged or just discarded bikes.

In 2017, a Chinese company called Ofo exported what is sometimes referred to as the Rogue bike share revolution to Seattle, and then Dallas. Its main rival in China, Mobike, soon followed. Each of these companies attracted millions of private funding to finance its global expansion. Although dockless programs have advantages, the lack of public sector involvement (they are completely financed by the private sector and do not collaborate with public sector transportation authorities or governments) and any form of regulation has led to some significant problems in the first U.S. host cities.


The appearance of Ofo and Mobike spawned the U.S. rivals Spin and LimeBike. When all of these companies (and a few smaller companies from China) descended on Dallas, the flexibility of renting a bike anywhere, anytime was appreciated by many residents. But soon, discarded bikes began piling up everywhere, blocking sidewalks, interfering with handicap accesses, and becoming mini-junk heaps in public spaces such as parks. What started out as a welcome addition to the city quickly became a public nuisance.


The pricing of the dockless bike share programs also came into question. Most programs offer an incredibly low first fare of $1 an hour. The price increases with use, however, and if the dockless bikes are used on a regular basis, e.g. for a commute to work, the fee gets steep fast. This is the opposite of station-based bike share programs, which reduce the fare the more a person uses the system, and which offer various subsidies for low-income people.

The rogue bike share business model relies on a very high volume of rides, a volume that most U.S. cities just do not have. Because the volume of rides is not there, profitability can only be achieved by cutting costs, either in staffing or bike maintenance, or both. These cost cutting measures raise safety concerns, especially given the fact that many of the bikes used by rogue bike share companies are not made well or made to last.


Cities where dockless bike share systems have taken hold are now considering regulating the rogue programs. Dallas is looking into regulating the following issues: (1) how long bikes can sit in a location before pick up; (2) whether there should be designated drop areas for bikes; (3) whether the city should charge bike share programs a franchise fee, which would go toward repairing public property and providing bike racks for dockless bikes that are rented (San Francisco does this).

In Florida, legislation that would have allowed state preemption of local control over the bike share programs was recently defeated. Ofo backed the legislation, but cities across Florida, as well as the North American Bikeshare Association (NABSA), strongly opposed it. Florida municipalities prefer to work with dockless bike share companies on their own or regionally, so they can control rebalancing of the bikes in accordance with community need, monitor safety standards, bike maintenance, where bikes are picked up and dropped off, and decisions regarding permitting and franchise fees.


Charlotte, N.C., is the latest city to welcome the rogue revolution. So far, so good. Atlanta could be next. Preparing for a dockless bike share program is the best way to ensure success. Regulations may help to keep the landscape figuratively and literally clean. Above all, allowing local communities to work with the bike share companies seems to be crucial to both citizen satisfaction as well as to corporate profitability. Getting people involved in town halls and council meetings early on in the process, before bikes “litter” the public spaces, will go a long way toward turning a nuisance into an asset.


If you or someone you know has been injured while riding a bicycle, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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