Seattle was the first city in the U.S. to establish regulations for private, dockless bike shares. So it makes sense that one of those bike-share companies—Spin, with the orange bikes—would poach someone from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to make the same thing happen in other cities.
Kyle Rowe, now head of government partnerships, spent the last four years SDOT, first as a transportation planner focused on pedestrians and bicycles. Eventually, though, his role got more specific: As the city developed its ultimately doomed Pronto program, Rowe became the city’s bike-share program manager, overseeing Pronto’s operations and eventual decommission.
After Pronto failed, Rowe looked to the private sector for bike shares—which is how we ended up with the city’s pilot program. After writing Seattle’s regulatory framework, he started thinking bigger.
“The Seattle project kind of helped me understand the opportunity that is available for companies like Spin to provide bikes to cities at a scale they hadn’t experienced in the first generation of bike share,” Rowe told Curbed Seattle.
“My role in the city was pretty cool and I was enjoying it,” he explained, but “what I’m seeing is the opportunity for a new and younger generation of tech startups to be proactive about having a collaborative partnership with city governments instead of just entering the market in a rogue manner.”
This is something that Spin made sure to do in Seattle, maybe because of their rocky start in Austin. The company attempted to debut at South by Southwest, but were shut down in under a day.
Rowe said working with cities is key to making these kinds of bike shares work: “If we start that relationship from day one we can make it work long-term.”
He said while the startup itself has ample opportunity for innovation—in the bikes and in the app—the policy side has plenty of potential on its own.
“To make this work and be sustainable I’m trying to bring the policy perspective and help [cities and Spin] collaborate on how we’re going to handle this,” he said.
Rowe’s new role is working with new markets where Spin hasn’t launched and helping them develop their policies, whether that’s a permit or memorandum of understanding (MOU), “and kind of looking at that on a global scale, kind of from the balcony, to see how bike-share policy is developing across the country.”
“When I was at SDOT, people were calling us crazy [over the bike-share program], why did you do that, why did you require that and not that,” explained Rowe. “There’s a reason behind [everything in the rules] and a lot of it was specific.”
Although each city has their needs in a bike-share framework—sometimes, that means no framework at all to start—Rowe told us that one thing that would be advantageous among cities with bike-share regulations would be “some continuity.” That means that, “like vehicle parking, if you go to a new city and rent a car, you can probably figure out how to park the car pretty quickly.”
Free-floating bike shares aren’t really parked like a single-user bicycle. “In the U.S., parking a bicycle has really just been hindered on parking on the bike rack,” he said. “[A dockless bike] doesn’t require a bike rack, so it’s really design of the space, design of the sidewalk and the street that dictates where the bike should be.”
There are multiple ways to signal where to park a bike. “With the company that’s like built into the app situation, in the city it’s paint, signage. That’s the baseline we need, then the biggest piece of is is going to be education, because you can put a lot of infrastructure in there but people need to know how to use it.”
Cities also have to have a method of enforcement, whether that’s gamification or penalties, like with car-sharing programs like Car2go and Reachnow—only a system is already in place to enforce car-share parking.
Which leads to one of Seattle’s biggest challenges with the present bike-share program: people “parking” the bikes anywhere from in trees to on top of the Fremont Troll to literally in a lake.
“People get creative with it,” admitted Rowe. Part of the problem, he thinks, is that people don’t know where to park bikes.
“When you have people reacting to a bike that’s in their way and they throw it... into a canal in Amsterdam or a lake if they’re in Seattle, that’s probably reacting to a bike being parked incorrectly and that’s a result of people not understanding where the bike should be.”
That’s not always the case. “Bikes in trees and bikes in trolls, though, I think that’s people that are really interested in vandalizing... and I think we’re going to see that taper off as it no longer becomes a target of people who really like to do that sort of thing.” (He pitched that people who see bikes underwater or anywhere else they shouldn’t be should let Spin know.)
Rowe says he’ll miss SDOT, although he “won’t be working with them because of ethics and all that.” (Rowe’s now former boss Scott Kubly was fined $10,000 for ethics violations after hiring a former employer to run Pronto.)
But in his new role, he said, it’s exciting to call up random cities and talk about bikes: “I’m a policy wonk, you’re a city manager... that is just such a cool place to be in.”
On top of that, he told us, it’s just an exciting time to be a part of it. “We’re having for the first time private money turning biking over on its head in every city,” he said. “Ubiquitous access to a bike. You’ll never have to question whether you’ll have the option of biking for that trip.”