Dockless Bikes Are Coming To Austin. But First, Let's Talk It Out.

Feb 1, 2018

This post has been updated to reflect the Austin City Council's approval of the pilot program.

Nobody wants to be the withholding stepparent.

That’s why, when dockless bike companies Ofo and Spin rolled out over SXSW last year, they put the city in a tough spot.

Austin, which markets itself as an innovative, tech-savvy city, had to stifle two seemingly forward-thinking tech startups during a festival that’s been a launchpad for so many others. But there was no getting around it – literally, in some cases.

Unlike Austin's B-Cycle, the smartphone-enabled rental bikes don't have to be dropped off at a docking station. The bikes were unregulated and unvetted by the city and ended up obstructing sidewalks. But, while Ofo's bikes were cited, the Austin Transportation Department reached a deal with Spin, allowing its bikes to roll along for the final days of the festival.

Since that soft launch at SXSW, dockless bike companies have sprung up in other cities – most notably Washington, D.C., Seattle and Dallas. And today, the Austin City Council gave an OK to a pilot program that looks to build upon those cities’ (often viral) missteps. It'll bring 2,500 dockless bikes to Austin for a pilot program that will last no longer than a year. 

As the “drop it when you’re done” bike model has mushroomed across the U.S., cities have greeted these programs with caution.

Washington, D.C., is asking residents to test out and provide feedback on five dockless bike-shares over a seven-month pilot period. Seattle’s dockless bike pilot ended in December, but the bikes will stick around at least another six more months. In the meantime, the city will analyze the data it collected during the pilot before giving the go-ahead to permanent rules. 

The benefit to the bikes are their convenience: You can open up an app and find one near you wherever you go. That benefit is also a detriment: If you can find them everywhere, they’re probably going to end up in some weird places.

They’ve been found on roadsides in D.C., stacked in gnarled masses along Seattle sidewalks and dumped in lakes in Dallas.

Last month, the Dallas city manager sent a letter to the five dockless bike-share companies operating there telling them they had three weeks to move bikes from sidewalks, roads and trails. The National Parks Service has impounded a dozen abandoned bikes near national monuments. And Seattle’s transportation department is leery of whether providers will comply with city ordinances, if the city decides to give the OK to a permanent program.

So, Austin is taking a decidedly less precarious route: Rubber won’t hit the road until Austinites have their say.

“What we’re proposing is to look at developing a demonstration pilot as informed by a public engagement process,” said Laura Dierenfield with the Austin Transportation Department. “So that would offer a way for interested companies to operate in Austin on a pilot basis, but that would only be after we conduct a public engagement process to better inform the terms and framework.”

So far, the department has been in contact with Spin, Zagster, LimeBike, Ofo, Dropbike, Mobike and Garland-based VBikes, Dierenfield said. The city pilot program could allow five providers a trial run with each given a maximum of 500 bikes, depending on the public feedback.

Dierenfield said, the department is taking cues from cities already spoke-deep in ire surrounding the errant bikes, like using innate GPS-connectivity to monitor which bikes are sitting idle for an extended period of time.

“The idea is to be able to see problems quickly, address them quickly, and then incentivize companies and users to maintain good order going forward,” Dierenfield said.

The city will also leverage federal transportation grant money to add 13 stations to its current 54-station B-Cycle system. The idea behind the expansion is to create a “hybrid” system, Dierenfield said, with the dockless bikes picking up slack for the B-Cycle kiosks, which are largely centrally located.

“Looking at a hybrid system could have the potential benefit of having even further access to bikes,” she said. “But it’s important to really think through how that system would be managed so that there is that predictability and not any added nuisance to having accessibility to bikes beyond where the stations exist.”

Oddly enough, Dierenfield said, the department is also considering applying a key facet of B-Cycle model to a possible dockless bike program: designated parking areas.

Audrey McGlinchy contributed to this report.

Clarification: This story initially stated that the pilot program will have a 500-bike maximum per provider; it could, but that's subject to public input.