How Does Austin Still Not Have Private Bikeshare?

Some U.S. cities simply allowed private bikeshare, and now have full-fledged systems. Then there's Austin.
By Scott Beyer | Mar 29, 2018 |
By Scott Beyer | Mar 29, 2018 |

An Ofo bike, pictured here, is still not allowed in Austin. / pixabay

The private dockless bikeshare industry is urban America’s latest disrupter, bringing both convenience and conflict into cities. This has caused two different reactions from cities themselves. Some have erred towards tolerance, allowing large increases in bikeshare industry growth and ridership. Others have outlawed private bikeshare, instead propping up dock-based public systems that are expensive to maintain and have minimal ridership.

Austin remains in the latter group, and recent news suggests the city will preserve this bureaucratic approach. In early February, city council announced a one-year pilot program that will let private bikeshare companies use city right-of-way. The roll-out for this program should theoretically be swift, since "right-of-way" in this case means allowing companies to place their bikes on sidewalks, so customers can ride them on roads. But according to a recent Austin Monitor report, eight weeks have passed since that announcement, and still the city is merely talking with different companies (including Limebike and ofo). These talks will continue through the summer, as the city organizes multiple meetings between staffers and neighborhood residents, with the latest one extending to June 21. Once the city reaches terms with the companies, plenty of regulation is expected.

"The pilot," stated the Monitor, "could require the companies to put up a performance bond, maintain a capped number of bicycles (perhaps based on the number of employees available to police them), share their data, or even provide parking solutions such as new racks."

The city will likely also collect fees of $30/bike.

Austin is therefore approaching bikeshare the same way it has recently handled ridesharing and housing.  Rather than allowing organic growth of industries that certain residents want and need, it favors regulation, process and community involvement.

The city will continue, however, to subsidize its public bikeshare system, Austin B-Cycle. The system was started with a federal grant of $908,500. It will receive another $200,000 in city funds this year for expansion. Yet this dock-based system has only 430 bikes spread across 54 stations. Since its launch about 4 years ago, it's averaged a paltry 180,000 trips annually.

To understand how Austin's approach differs from other cities, just note the last 12 months. In March of 2017, the bikeshare company Spin tried to roll out its bicycles during South by Southwest. Austin officials threatened to impound the bikes.

As the city has ruminated over policy solutions (and continues to) in the year since, other cities have blown right past Austin. In July of 2017, Seattle launched its own pilot program for private bikeshare. After six months, three different companies had served up 347,000 rides. This is 25% more rides than Seattle's now-defunct public bikeshare system had served in 2.5 years of existence, and is clearly greater activity than what is now happening in Austin.

Or take Dallas. Like Austin, it is a hot, sprawling, auto-centric city that would not seem conducive to bikeshare.  But it deregulated the industry in August, and is now North America's bikeshare capital, with nearly 20,000 bikes in circulation. Although total ridership numbers aren't available, Limebike amassed 81,000 rides in less than 5 months, and it is just one of many companies in the city.

The issues that Dallas and Seattle now deal with are ones caused by excess popularity. Because these cities have so many bikes – and because those bikes can't be docked anywhere – they get strewn all over the public realm, cluttering parks and sidewalks. Both cities are now aiming to regulate their upstart bikeshare industries, crucially, after already rolling them out.

Contrast this with Austin, which seemed to think bike clutter was such a potential nuisance, it merited an outright ban for over a year. Now that a pilot has been announced, maybe they'll release that first bike or two onto the streets in a couple months. Meantime, Dallas, Seattle and many other U.S. cities will continue growing this exciting new industry to heights far beyond what Austin will allow.

[This article was originally published by Forbes.]