The infamous lilac bikes of Spokane were, infamously, thrown into the Spokane River in 1997.
Fingers crossed the electric Lime bikes and scooters that will appear in Spokane this summer don’t face the same watery fate.
The city of Spokane is working with Lime, a Silicon Valley-based bicycle and scooter sharing company, to bring its dockless vehicles to town. The bikes and scooters are electric, giving some assist to riders. And they’re dockless, meaning they can be parked anywhere and have electronic “frame locks” that release only after users register on a smartphone app with a credit card.
The city’s pilot project will help set regulations for bike sharing in Spokane, and city officials anticipate rules to be set in place early next year.
Brandon Blankenagel, a city engineer who is working to bring the program to Spokane, said Lime, which received $335 million in investments earlier this month from Uber and Alphabet, was chosen after another company, ofo, announced last week that it was largely pulling out of the American market.
Aside from working the kinks out of the program, the pilot is also intended to get Spokanites comfortable seeing all those green and yellow bikes and scooters around town.
“It’s going to be a shock when you see bikes that are unowned on the streets, even if it’s one or two bikes,” Blankenagel said.
The city is inventorying its available bike parking downtown, and is considering making some bike racks reserved exclusively for bike share bikes, to give consistency for users about where they can pick up and leave bikes. The city is also discussing installing bike corrals, which are rows of bike racks on the street in vehicle parking spots, instead of on the sidewalk.
Toole Design Group, an active transportation consultant based in Portland, has been hired to help gather feedback before and during the pilot. The group will evaluate bike usage data and help develop long-term bike share program procedures and supporting legislation. Its work is being funded by an $80,000 federal air quality grant.
Bike shares are nothing new. The ill-fated lilac bikes appeared in Spokane a generation ago, when 50 rehabilitated, one-speed purple bikes showed up in June 1997, slapped with friendly stickers asking users to be so kind as to leave them in places where other users could find and ride them for free. The program folded quickly, after most of the bikes simply disappeared or were found washed up on the shores of the Spokane River.
The new generation of shared vehicles is much more advanced. In dockless programs like Lime’s, the bikes and scooters are not secured in a central kiosk, but can be locked anywhere around town. After installing the Lime app on their phone, users view a map of available bikes and find the nearest one. At the bike, they open the app, scan the QR code on the bike and the lock automatically releases. When they’re finished riding, cyclists or scooter-users manually lock the vehicle and they’re done. Their phone logs the time spent on the bike, and users are charged accordingly. For Lime, that means $1 for every half hour.
Lime is one of many companies leading the charge in bike sharing. In 2017, 35 million trips on shared bicycles were taken in the U.S., a 25 percent increase over 2016, according to the National Association of Transportation Officials. The number of bikes used in such systems more than doubled nationwide in 2017, from 42,500 bikes in 2016 to about 100,000.
Dockless bike sharing saw even more dramatic growth in 2017, the first year such “smart” technology was implemented. After a fitful and unregulated beginning, five major dockless bike share companies were operating in 25 American cities at the end of 2017, representing 44 percent of all bike share bikes in the country.
Such systems aren’t without problems. In Lime’s case, their scooters sudden appearance around San Francisco sparked some outrage. Some users left them wherever they wanted, obstructing sidewalks. Others threw them in San Francisco Bay.
Just a month or so ahead of Spokane, Portland launched an electric scooter sharing pilot program, and it’s already caused a ruckus. The Portland Bureau of Transportation has expressed displeasure with the scooters, writing on Twitter that they’re “toys that tech bros leave lazily strewn about, blocking corner ramps needed for people with disabilities.”
Shared vehicles also have advantages.
According to Uber, which owns an electric bike share program called Jump, dockless bike shares are proving a convenient way for people to ditch their cars, one trip at a time. A Medium post by Uber policy analyst Santosh Rao described how the ride-sharing company saw the number of rides its cars give decrease between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.. At the same time, the number of users of Jump increased. In other words, people sought to avoid congestion by taking a shared bike.
“This is a promising early sign of the ability of eBikes to alleviate congestion and reduce car trips,” Rao wrote.
In its own report, Lime broke down the cost of car ownership versus using bike shares. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lime said it’s 80 percent cheaper to use its shared vehicles in conjunction with transit than it is to own a car.
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