Bike-sharing hits a few bumps in the road
Brightly colored rental bicycles are popping up at MBTA stops, near street corners, and at designated docking stations across Greater Boston — all meant to lure more people to pick an environmentally friendly way to get around town.
But as more cities and towns adopt bike-share programs — about two dozen so far, and counting — there have been growing pains amid the glowing reviews.
Peggy Enders, chairwoman of Lexington’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, said rental bikes offered through the regional Minuteman Bike Share program have proven to be popular with tourists and those who want to visit the community’s downtown.
“The place is jammed with people on bikes. The economy benefits from bike-friendliness in any form,” Enders said. “And they’re fun to ride.”
Bike-share systems have met with mixed results elsewhere, especially those that don’t require bikes be left at a docking station. In Lynn, officials ended a four-month trial for dockless bikes in September after bikes from Ant Bicycle, Lime, and ofo became a nuisance, said City Councilor Brian Fields.
“We were fielding a lot of complaints,” Fields said. “And it wasn’t just a couple of hours or a couple of days at a time, it was a couple weeks at a time that these bikes would be in the same place, or on someone’s private property.”
In Swampscott, officials also ended a trial bike-share program over similar complaints, according to Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald.
“Bikes ended up in the Atlantic Ocean or in snowbanks,” he said.
Salem offers a bicycle-sharing network through Zagster, which has 10 docking stations around the city, including Salem State University. But the City Council recently passed an order barring the rental of “dockless” bikes by firms that lack a relationship with the city.
“No company can do this unless they work out an agreement with the city that the mayor and the City Council approve of,” said City Councilor Josh Turiel, who proposed the order. “It just means that they just can’t unilaterally decide that Salem is their next market.”
Salem’s action comes as communities continue to adapt to an evolving network of rental bicycle services spread out across the Greater Boston area.
Some bike-share services rely on docking stations for rental bicycles — meaning there are established endpoints for riders, such as the Bluebikes system used by Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville.
Zagster bikes can be parked at an any Zagster station or city bike rack in Salem. The company also oversees the Minuteman system, a dock-based network that includes Lexington, Concord, Acton, and Maynard. And it provides bike-share services in New Bedford and Marlborough and at Bridgewater State University.
Other bike-share programs are “dockless” — riders can take a rental bike and leave it anywhere. That’s the model used in a program organized by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency, which will eventually include 15 local communities near Route 128.
Bikes from San Francisco-based Lime already are available in Arlington, Bedford, Belmont, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Melrose, Needham, Newton, Revere, Watertown, and Winthrop through the MAPC program, and will soon be launched in Medford, Milton, and Waltham.
Cambridge-based Ant Bicycle has also made inroads with its dockless bicycles, expanding into Boston and several other cities and towns, according to its website.
Turiel, the Salem city councilor, said he proposed tightening Salem’s rules after he spotted bikes owned by Ant parked in Salem, sometimes for weeks, without being retrieved by the company.
Aries Yang, the marketing manager for Ant, said in an e-mail the company began removing its bikes from Salem months ago, and will “react fast” to any requests to retrieve a bike.
“We truly understand the city’s concern, and we are working hard to keep our bicycles organized and controlled,” Yang said of the Salem order. “We will respect the city’s decision.”
But discouraging dockless rental bikes from entering Salem unless the owner has an agreement with the city is the wrong move, said Joey O’Neil, chairman of the Salem Bicycle Advisory Committee.
“We’re saying you can’t ride a dockless bike into Salem, even though we are trying to encourage these alternative transportation modes,” O’Neil said. “I think it limits transportation options to the city.”
Turiel said he would consider a dockless program in Salem, if done the right way. “To me, it’s not about preventing it entirely,” Turiel said. “If one of these companies wants to come to us with a dockless proposal, we should be listening.”
During Lynn’s trial program, officials found that dockless bikes were used mostly for recreation, rather than for commuting, said Fields, the city councilor. After fielding complaints about abandoned bicycles on sidewalks and private property, the city ended the program.
“My colleagues and I had to decide whether there was a benefit to residents with the bike share, and weigh that against the challenges . . . and unfortunately, the challenges certainly outweighed the benefits,” Fields said.
In the future, Fields said, a bike-share program with physical docking stations at points of interest such as the beach might work.
Fitzgerald, the Swampscott town administrator, also said he sees a role for bicycling as a transportation option. “Swampscott is one of the most densely settled communities in Massachusetts,” Fitzgerald said. “Why would we not want to get more cars off the road?”
Along Route 128, the regional dockless program overseen by the MAPC has taken off in popularity, officials said. Since its launch last summer, the program has generated nearly 250,000 trips, said Kasia Hart, the MAPC’s transportation policy and planning specialist.
So far, about 1,800 bikes and another 200 electric pedal-assist bikes have been deployed through Lime, Hart said. The electric bikes allow riders to travel about 14 miles per hour, she said.
“The general feedback that we’ve heard from the communities that are participating in this dockless system has been positive,” Hart said.
Quincy also signed up with Lime this summer after the Chinese bike-share company ofo announced it was scaling back in North America. Lime has placed about 300 bikes around the city, the company said.
Since Lime bikes first appeared in Newton in July, the program has generated about 15,000 trips, and there has been a surge of popularity in the electric-assist bikes, according to Nicole Freedman, the city’s director of transportation planning.
The city also has established strict regulations for parking, and for ensuring Lime responds quickly to remove any bicycle that was improperly parked or has received complaints, Freedman said in an e-mail.
“We are very happy with how the system has rolled out so far,” Freedman said.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com .