Austin considers ‘dockless’ bike share pilot program


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council will consider a resolution Thursday to start a pilot program for dockless bike shares, which rely on GPS, automatic locks, and apps to connect riders with short-term bike rentals.

The Austin Transportation Department is proposing the pilot, which would potentially bring several dockless bike companies to the city, to help work out a management system and fix any problems that may arise from an arrangement that has caused headaches in other big cities.

Austin’s current bike share program, Austin B-cycle, relies on 54 stations around the city. A rider rents a bike from and returns it to any of them when she’s done riding it. It’s been a popular program over the last four years, the transportation department said, providing over a million rides.

But it can be problematic.

“This is something that I do every once in a blue moon,” Berenice Alvarado said, renting a bike Wednesday — the morning after a literal blue moon. She’d never used B-cycle before, but used a similar system that relied on stations when she visited Miami.

“We got lost,” she said, “and so that sucked, because there was no place to return it until we actually found our way.”

That’s where the dockless bikes would have come in handy. A rider uses an app to find a bike nearby, enters or scans a code to open a lock attached to it, and starts riding. When done, that rider parks the bike wherever she stops, locks it up and then it’s free for someone else nearby to rent. Typically the rides cost about $1 to start.

Managing dockless bikes has proven difficult in other cities, including Dallas. Riders there have been leaving bikes wherever they feel like — including in lakes and rivers, and piled up on street corners or in parks. The city manager there set a deadline for bike share companies to clean up the messes their customers leave behind by February or face consequences.

The management system Austin wants to establish would include safeguards against that kind of behavior. It would also determine how many bikes the city can support and where they’re most needed, according to Laura Dierenfield with the transportation department.

The city also plans to collect fees from the bike share companies during the pilot — $30 per bike. The department expects the one-time fees to generate $90,000 in revenue. “Those fees would help pay for things like inspection, monitoring, and bicycle parking,” Dierenfield said, “because, after all, we want to set people up for success in using bicycles and having a safe place to pick them up and drop them off.”

Those fees might change following the pilot.

If city council votes in favor of the resolution, it won’t be the first time dockless bike shares have shown up in Austin. Several companies dropped off bikes during SXSW last year. They didn’t file for permits, though, so the city started impounding the unauthorized two-wheelers. Toward the end of the festival, one company, Ofo, reached an agreement with the city to provide their rides legally for free, but that ended when SXSW did.

The transportation department is also recommending city council expand the current B-cycle program to add more stations.

Alvarado probably won’t be a regular customer no matter what form bike shares take. She only rented on Wednesday because it was a nice day and she was looking for something to do with a friend.

But she said the dockless systems would be a little more useful for commuters. “I think these are definitely like more if you’re just looking for something to do,” she said of the B-cycle she was about to ride down the Hike-and-Bike trail, “not something that you would use very often.”

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