Is Boston headed for a bike-business border battle?
There’s a border war in the bike-rental business.
A new generation of companies providing on-the-spot bicycles has infiltrated Greater Boston, and they have a crucial distinction from the popular Hubway system used in the area: They do not rely on fixed docking stations, but rather let users park and lock the rental nearly anywhere they want.
After quickly rising in popularity in China, the dockless technology has spread to the United States, with a major expansion underway in municipalities around Boston. But the rub is that the companies won’t be allowed to officially set up shop in Boston — or in neighboring Somerville, Cambridge, and Brookline — because Hubway has an exclusive contract to run a bike system in those cities and towns until 2022.
As a result, the region is pedaling toward two separate systems: Hubway, which is owned by the four municipalities but run by a private contractor, and the new-age dockless bikes.
“We’ve been pushing for a while to bring other municipalities into the Hubway system. That has moved more slowly than we would have hoped. And in the meantime, the technology is changing,” said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency that spearheaded Hubway and now plans to launch a regional dockless system. “There are new kids on the block at this time, and there are communities that want to go dockless.”
The Chinese company Ofo recently deployed hundreds of bikes in Worcester, Chelsea, and Revere and is expected to expand into Malden this week.
Another dockless company, LimeBike, plans to launch its service in Malden soon.
And this fall, the planning council will solicit bids from companies interested in launching a regional dockless system, which could bring bikes next year to as many as 13 additional municipalities, including Newton, Arlington, and Quincy.
An Ofo rider uses a smartphone app to locate and unlock a freestanding bike and at the end of a trip can leave it anywhere that’s legal. A locking mechanism secures the rear wheel, and users receive a code from the app to unlock it.
Ofo charges $1 an hour. Hubway has several membership options, such as a yearly subscription for $99 that provides the first half-hour of each rental for no additional charge. An additional 30 minutes costs $1.50. Nonmembers can pay $8 for a 24-hour pass, with additional fees for any rides that last longer than 30 minutes.
In addition to providing greater flexibility for users, the dockless system costs less to run, because there’s no infrastructure except for the bicycles. Hubway municipalities pay for the bikes and station equipment, Draisen said.
Motivate, which operates Hubway, in the spring signed new five-year contracts with Boston and the other three municipal owners that make it the exclusive bike operator on their streets. Motivate declined to comment.
But Stefanie Seskin, Boston’s director of active transportation, noted that Hubway will expand significantly under the new contracts, and said Motivate may eventually introduce a dockless system of its own.
Cara Seiderman, a transportation planning manager in Cambridge, argued that since Hubway is publicly owned, there is greater accountability. And Denise Taylor, a city of Somerville spokeswoman, brushed off the lack of competition to Hubway in her city.
“Our Hubway contract precludes other bike-sharing options, but we don’t see this as a hindrance, as Hubway has been a great partner and is working well here,” Taylor said.
Jonathan Fertig, a cycling advocate, said he’s frustrated that dockless systems won’t be allowed in Boston, because they could help fill gaps in the Hubway network. He does not believe the Hubway expansion — to about 270 in the four communities — will be adequate.
“I’m in favor of anything that makes riding a bike for transportation more convenient,” he said.
However, there is apparently nothing to stop an Ofo customer from renting a bike in Chelsea and riding into Boston or Somerville and leaving it there — for a new customer to rent from that location. Bike enthusiasts have already posted pictures of the bright yellow Ofo bikes parked in Hubway territory, but it’s unclear if local officials can stop them from being left on their streets.
Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets, said the city is focused on making sure Hubway operates well. Somerville said it will enforce regulations that prohibit locking bikes to trees, benches, or trash barrels. But that’s unlikely to be an issue for Ofo bikes, which don’t need to be attached to anything.
Joe Viola, a Brookline planning official, was not sure how the town would address an Ofo influx: “We’re trying to get our heads around what happens when the bikes show up.”
Chris Taylor, who runs Ofo’s US operations and previously worked at Uber, said the company wants a good relationship with the Hubway communities and intends to collect bikes that cross local borders “as quickly as possible.” But, he said, Ofo “can’t stand at every bridge and tell people to turn back.”
He hopes the company will eventually have permission to operate in Boston.
Chris Dempsey, director of the nonprofit advocacy organization Transportation for Massachusetts, likened the bicycle conflict to a two-wheeled version of the Uber-versus-taxis dispute. He encouraged the Hubway municipalities to be open to dockless bikes “as an opportunity to give people more choices, just as Uber and Lyft did.”
Meanwhile, dockless skeptics see drawbacks. Pictures of Ofo bikes falling over on sidewalks in Chelsea are being posted on social media, and in China, photos have gone viral showing piles of vandalized bikes littering the landscape.
There’s also the issue of theft, so common in China that it led one dockless bike company to close. A spokeswoman said Ofo can tell whether bikes are lost or stolen through their GPS systems, and that it hasn’t been an issue here.
In the United States, Seattle has most prominently embraced dockless bikes. After ending its traditional bike system this year, it allowed three companies to launch dockless systems for a one-year test. Transit director Andrew Glass Hastings said dockless systems are easier to manage. Rather than pay to operate a traditional system, Seattle now regulates the dockless companies — which pay the city a fee.