The problem isn’t dockless bikes. It's dockless cars.
Bike companies and reviewers love to describe new tech as game-changing. Consequently, we’ve reached the point where we can no longer even conceive of riding a road bike with fewer than eleven cogs or a mountain bike without a telescoping seatpost. However, all recent innovations together barely move the needle to “nifty” compared to what is by far the most revolutionary advancement to hit velocipeding since the safety bicycle:
Cycling evangelists have long pondered what it will take to make cycling go mainstream, and while the 21st century has provided plenty of trends so far (fixies, gravel, ever-changing mountain bike wheelsizes), it turns out bike share is the big one. Bike share is doing for bicycles-as-transport what Starbucks did for the macchiato: transforming it from something exotic and foreign-sounding into something commonplace. And while neither a Starbucks macchiato nor a hefty bike-share bike are likely to excite the connoisseur, both are eminently accessible, which is ultimately the point.
Even more remarkable, bike share has defied much of our culture’s anti-bike bile. Five years ago, Citi Bike launched in New York City amid a flurry of editorials about how all the bikes would get stolen and the streets would run red with the blood of hapless tourists. Today the system sees over 15 million trips a year and has proven remarkably safe, and the only real complaining you hear these days is that it’s not available in more neighborhoods.
In that time, bike share has also diversified, with dockless systems becoming increasingly popular. Dockless systems are cheaper for both cities and riders. They eliminate the twin frustrations of empty and full docks. They also require less political currency to deploy since they don’t need dedicated space and equipment. Docklessness is a boon or a drawback depending on how you look at it: the system is flexible on one hand, noncommittal on the other.
But with the rise of dockless bike share has come a new backlash, and critics are sounding plaintive warnings about the chaos caused by large quantities of untethered bicycles. You’ve seen the vast bicycle graveyards of China. You’ve read of the “litter bikes” that are hanging from trees and lying across train tracks, cluttering cities all across America and crippling their infrastructure. Most recently, you’ve heard of the dreaded Scooters of San Francisco, which you’d think was most devastating force to hit the City by the Bay since the earthquake of 1906.
Yeah, that’s right: Scooters. Dockless bike share technology is so scary that it doesn’t even require bikes to destroy your town anymore.
To be sure, I prefer the idea of a docking bike-share system. I’m a great fan of Citi Bike. Stations filled with bikes standing like soldiers at attention and flanked by large maps inspire confidence, as does the solid “ker-thunk!” you hear when you dock a bike at one. Dockless bikes hang out on streetcorners and in front of convenience stores, loitering shiftlessly on their kickstands, either alone or else conspiring in small clusters like delinquent teenagers.
I also can’t help being suspicious of cities’ motives for choosing dockless systems. It seems noncommittal. Docking bike share systems are like investing in cat towers, while dockless is more like leaving food out for the neighborhood strays.
Still, I live in a dense city, so I’m biased. It’s easy to see how a more sprawling and less centralized area would benefit from dockless bikes over a network of fixed stations. It’s even easier to scoff at this notion that we’re on the cusp of some sort of dockless dystopia. After all, as others have pointed out, dockless bike graveyards are infinitesimal compared to their motor-vehicle counterparts. For that matter, you could probably bury all those dead bikes (plus a decent portion of the cars) in non-recyclable Keurig K-Cups alone. And when was the last time you heard of a bicycle tire fire? As for the concept of “litter bikes,” any cyclist recognizes that phrase for the oxymoron it is. There’s no such thing. Even the lowliest department store frame will eventually be incorporated into a tall bike.
Hey, forget litter bikes: What about litter cars? There are entire cars, bits of cars, and all matter of automotive sundries strewn all over the landscape, regardless of where you live. Our road shoulders are full of disembodied bumpers and wayward wheel covers. Our embankments are strewn with illegally dumped car tires. Our streets are stained with oil that runs off into the waterways. Not only do the cars themselves spew pollutants from their tailpipes, but their occupants eject all manner of garbage from the windows, including entire bags of fast food containers. I’ve never seen anyone drop a sack of McDonald’s off a bike, but I’ve seen drivers drop them while waiting at red lights plenty of times. Then there’s the detritus drivers leave while they’re parked. Just scan the curbside and you’ll see everything from half-drunk iced macchiatos from Starbucks to plastic bottles full of urine.
Litter bikes, really? Please. Cars hog so much space that we’re forced to share our precious sidewalks with literal trash.
There’s no question dockless bike share has had its problems and could use refinement. However there’s also no question it’s got massive potential and is going to be an integral part of how we get around in the future. Uber has bought Jump, Lyft may be buying Motivate. As for all those scooters in San Francisco, critics would have you think they’re tantamount to a bunch of hungry tigers roaming the streets, but the worst injury anybody seems to be willing to go on record with so far is a broken toe. Meanwhile, cars are such effective killing machines that they even murder us at home while we sleep. Funny how we fret about dockless bike and scooter share when keyless ignitions are way scarier.
Ultimately, our fear of dockless bikes reveals three things:
We set aside an insane amount of space for cars;
We’ve become so inured to this state of affairs that anything occupying the tiny sliver of public space that remains seems out of place if it’s not either a car or part of a car;
The solution isn’t cracking down on shareable last-mile forms of conveyance, it’s making more room for them.