City's Dockless Rental Bike Trial Sparks Love And Hate

Feb 15, 2018

There's a colorful addition to Charlotte's urban landscape. Since November, hundreds of orange, green and yellow rental bicycles have appeared on uptown streets and neighborhood sidewalks. They can be picked up and left anywhere - a feature that makes them both welcome and despised.

On Tuesday, Joshua Artis and three friends rode their dockless bikes up to a building just off North Tryon Street in Charlotte, where they had an afternoon meeting. Before going inside, the 21-year-old Artis said he's a big fan of the bikes, which he uses to get around the city: "I ride back and forth to school and to work and to the house."

Before the bikes were available, Artis rode the bus and walked most places. This is an improvement, he said.  “It's more convenient. A lot better. I can get around faster.”  

Artis said the price is good, too. It's a dollar an hour on the yellow "Ofo" bike he's riding today. A one-way fare on the city bus is $2.20.

The Chinese-owned Ofo is in 250 cities around the world, and one of four competitors in a one-year pilot program started this winter by the City of Charlotte. You'll also see orange bikes from Spin, green-and-yellow LimeBikes, and orange-wheeled Mobikes. Dockless rental bikes are also turning up across North Carolina, including Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro and on college campuses.

NO DOCK REQUIRED

Unlike existing bike rental services like B-cycle that require docking stations, these bikes are controlled by smartphone apps and have wheel locks that engage when they're not in use. That allows them to be left anywhere - and that's causing some problems. Residents complain that bikes are scattered in the streets, block sidewalks, and sometimes are laying on their sides. One was even spotted in the pond at Freedom Park.  

“I think most of us would agree that having more bikes … more accessibility to bikes for people in our community is a good thing,” said city council member Larken Egleston. “I think the key is just making sure that these bikes are left in places responsibly and not just kind of tossed aside wherever someone's done with it.”

Egleston's District 1 includes the Plaza Midwood neighborhood, where the bikes have been a hot topic.

“There has been a lot of negativity around bikes, where they end up. Like, on Central Avenue, there was one day I rode down the street and there were four on each side of the street like scattered throughout the block. So I think mostly the residents are concerned at where they end up,” said Clifton Castelloe, president of the Plaza Midwood Merchants Association.

Castelloe said dockless bikes can be good for business, and he wants the neighborhood to be more bike-friendly. But residents are concerned that there's no order to the service right now.

Under the city's pilot program, cyclists - and ultimately bike vendors - are responsible for making sure the rules are followed. Those rules say bikes can't be left in the street or obstructing a sidewalk.

Since complaints first began surfacing, it appears bike companies are taking action. Castelloe said he's seen fewer problems recently.

Ofo Spokesman Taylor Bennett said his company is doing its part.

“We've got teams who are managing those fleets seven days a week. And you know we are working daily to rebalance, redistribute. You know, if we hear issues of bikes blocking entrances or on private property, we can immediately respond and move those,” Bennett said.

HOW MANY IS TOO MANY?

Charlotte lets bike companies put up to 500 bikes on the streets. But what's the right number? That's a question city officials will be trying to answer this year.

From a business standpoint, Bennett said Ofo would like to expand its fleet.

“Typically, just kind of a general idea, we say you know 100 bikes about 100 people per bike,” he said.

That would include all competitors in the market. To cover all of Charlotte, that translates to more than 8,000 bikes, or quadruple the current total among four companies.

Egleston said he thinks the market eventually will shake out.

“I doubt we end up with four of these services all wanting to stay in the market. I think that's probably an oversaturation,” he said. “But I do think that one or two or maybe three of these, well-deployed, and well-understood by residents here in Charlotte could be successful and I think could be more responsible.”

Charlotte is testing dockless bikes as part of an effort to expand transportation choices. For now, the city doesn't charge bike companies any kind of permit fee and isn't making any money by allowing dockless bike rentals.

Charlotte Department of Transportation officials who oversee the program refused to be interviewed for this story. In a written statement, they noted that the program is a one-year pilot, scheduled to be reviewed this fall. They're seeking public input through an online survey and say they plan to brief the city council at the pilot's halfway point - in May or June.  

Meanwhile, cyclists are conducting their own trials. Artis said he's used several of the bikes and has his own thoughts.

“I mean I like the OFO bike seat thing better. But riding better - the LimeBike,” he said.

Ultimately, whether any of the dockless bike companies success will rest on the willingness of Charlotte residents to ride - and reviews like these.

 

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Jan 4, 2018 at 5:56am PST

RELATED LINKS

Charlotte DOT dockless bike information page