Whatever happened to something being as easy as riding a bicycle?
What started out as a simple idea — kiosks at key locations in urban areas offering bicycles for rent by the hour or less — has morphed into a free-for-all pitting bike-share upstarts against established giants and municipalities dictating which company can operate where. Add to that the actions of bike renters, who may innocently take a bike outside of its jurisdiction or not-so-innocently leave it on the sidewalk as a hazard to pedestrians and those with disabilities.
Still, it’s a good concept. Anything that takes a car off the road in congested metro areas like Boston is welcome, and that concept is at work in cities worldwide. Boston’s began as Hubway in 2011. Expanded to Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline, it was renamed Blue Bikes in April, sponsored by Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and charges $2.50 for 30 minutes or a year of unlimited 45-minute rides for $99.
Yet with innovation comes the inevitable disruptor. A refinement freeing the bikes from their docks, which started in China, became widespread in the US last year. With an app, users can now find a nearby dockless bike and drop it off wherever they want. The technology can also lock the back wheel to inhibit theft.
“Wherever users want” doesn’t necessarily match the maps government officials had in mind after striking exclusive deals with companies to run docked-bike services. In the Blue Bikes areas, that’s meant hostility toward suburban dockless upstarts when their wayward bikes end up in the four communities. The sidewalk hazard is also an issue, which some dockless companies address with strict parking rules. The bike-share wars also mean zero cooperation between competing entities, frustrating users who might want to ride a Blue Bike to South Station, board the Red Line, and pick up an out-of-network Ofo bike in Quincy. Doing so means downloading multiple apps and extra sign-ups and credit-card checks.
That may sound like a classic First World problem, but the scenario is real in transit planning, known as the “last mile” dilemma: getting people to specific destinations beyond the main routes.
A positive development comes from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which helped facilitate the original Hubway deal and last month delivered another. Dockless bikes from two companies, LimeBike and Spin, will now be available for $1 for the first 30 minutes in 15 communities (Arlington, Bedford, Belmont, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Needham, Newton, Revere, Waltham, Watertown, and Winthrop). With many of those adjacent to one another, it’s good news for riders — except when they hit the Blue Bikes boundaries, where the bikes aren’t allowed to be parked.
So can the bike-share entities learn to share — their geography, if not their apps?
They have elsewhere. In Washington, D.C., the city’s Capital Bikeshare is managed by Motivate, the same company that runs the Blue Bikes operation. The agreement allows for a trial run of dockless bike operators that so far has seen no appreciative drop-off in Capital Bikeshare use, according to the District of Columbia’s bikeshare manager. Motivate also operates San Francisco’s Ford GoBike program, which users can access using a Clipper card, the Bay Area’s version of the T’s CharlieCard.
For their part, Blue Bikes officials describe their program as a transit system owned by the four participating municipalities. That’s fine, except there already is a transit agency in Eastern Massachusetts: It’s called the MBTA, and the idea is to serve the entire region. And like San Francisco’s Clipper card, the T’s new fare collection system, which is being designed to accept everything from CharlieCards to smartphones, may hold the ultimate answer to seamless travel between buses, trains, and bikes.
In the meantime, can we bike without the bickering? Bike-share companies banking on attracting venture capitalists by eating a competitor’s lunch would better assure their viability by providing a seamless experience for their customers. And government entities that have contracts creating artificial monopolies should consider whether those boundaries are in the best interests of consumers.
All of which would make riding a bike, or at least renting one for an hour, easy again — and far less confusing.