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Seattle plans long-term rules for private bike shares

After evaluating a pilot program, the city is adjusting its expectations for bike-share operators

Ken 18/Shutterstock

Seattle will soon have new rules that will govern how bike-share companies operate in the city long-term—and could pave the way for additional bike-share companies coming to Seattle.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in Seattle, you’ve probably noticed that there are colorful, shared bikes everywhere. But the three companies operating those bikes, Lime, Ofo, and Spin, have been operating under rules from a temporary pilot program put together by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), which tested the waters and gathered data on usage. (Which, by the way, is high: May 2018 saw more than 200,000 rides, and June data, which is still being finalized, is trending even higher.)

Soon, SDOT will be sending a fee structure that would make those more permanent rules possible to the Seattle City Council for review and approval. And because, however temporary, the pilot was the first set of rules to govern how private bike shares operate within cities, the permanent legislation has national implications.

While the typical user may notice some changes under the pilot, they won’t be governed by any new laws. But the permit for operators will change, with an eye for, as SDOT bike-share program manager Joel Miller puts it, “equity, parking, and rider behavior.”

Fleet size and operations

For the permanent program, SDOT is sticking with the same basic model as the pilot: annual permits that need to be renewed each year. And while existing bike-share operators have had permits extended to September—a timeframe that could shorten or lengthen depending on how long it takes to get the permanent program in place—they will all have to rebid to keep their spot on city streets.

While the goal is to have a program that’s adjustable, SDOT wants to start the new program with a cap of four operators (currently, the city has three) and 20,000 bikes on the street (Seattle had around 10,000 at the end of the pilot period). Companies would have to pay fees totaling $50 for each new bike on the street: $30 for administration, like independent audits, equity work with the Department of Neighborhoods, and potential partnerships to make bikes more accessible, and $20 to support programs to make bike-share parking clear and available.

“Obviously [companies] need to agree to all the permit requirements that will be out there,” explained Miller. “But beyond that, we’re asking for specific plans from the companies for things like, how do you plan to get your users to park better? How do you ensure that the right-of-way, and especially ADA access, remains clear? We’ll be asking for plans like, how are you educating your users?... How are you ensuring your users are riding safely?”

Experience matters too, said Miller, especially a demonstrated ability to meet scale and operate safely.But it’s after evaluating the plans, said Miller, that SDOT will “be able to rank the applications and let the companies in that we know can meet our requirements.”

An Ofo bike parked by the Amazon campus.
SeaRick1/Shutterstock

Parking, safety, and enforcement

Miller acknowledges that one of the major problems during the pilot was proper parking of the bikes. While both pilot rules and the proposed permanent rules mandate maintaining ADA compliance and not blocking the pedestrian right-of-way, compliance on that point has been shaky at best. And even when the rules were perfectly complied with, it wasn’t the most helpful.

“If [someone experiencing a blocked right-of-way] calls, the company has to come out within 2 hours,” explained Miller, but “if you’re in a wheelchair and the bike is blocking a curb ramp... that’s not really going to help you.”

SDOT’s approach to fixing this has two parts: First, SDOT will impose penalties on bike-share operators after repeated bad user behavior, with the goal of encouraging creative solutions for encouraging good behavior. Second, SDOT will be expanding its efforts to clarify where bikes can be parked—and will create new spaces outside the public right-of-way.

“We’re looking at a third-party audit [for rule enforcement],” said Miller. “The companies don’t know when it’s coming, and it looks at how many bikes are blocking where people are walking.” In addition to parking, audits would look at bicycle maintenance, safety issues, and data accuracy.

If companies aren’t meeting requirements, said Miller, SDOT will start enforcement actions—for example, fleet reductions for offending companies. “We see that as something they would take seriously.”

Miller told us that he hopes this will encourage creative solutions to keep the bikes in line, like “gamification, crowdsourcing, staffing, or devices on the bikes.”

“[The companies] really need to figure out this major problem that we had in the pilot,” said Miller. “And I think they can do it.”

But to make good behavior a little easier, SDOT is expanding on a pilot program that added designated bike-share parking to some sidewalks in Ballard, outlining areas where bikes could legally be parked without getting in the right-of-way. Similar painted spots could be coming to other neighborhoods.

Miller also said that SDOT would be keeping bike-share in mind as they expand existing in-street bike corrals, which take a no-parking zone at the end of a block and mark it off for bike parking. “We’re adding capacity for bike share, we’re adding capacity for personal bikes,” said Miller. “But even if they’re not being used at that time we’re creating a safer pedestrian environment,” he added—corrals prevent big trucks from pulling over in that space, blocking the view of crossing pedestrians.

“This would hopefully alleviate some of that and there would be clear areas for bike share that don’t need a lock and also some inverted-U racks for personal bikes, or also if there were a model that did require a lock.”

A Spin bike in downtown Seattle.
Courtesy of Spin

Equity, pricing, and accessibility

Around a quarter of respondents in a bike-share evaluation survey said that shared bikes don’t meet their size or physical needs. So SDOT is looking toward more accessible bike options, like hand cycles, cargo trikes, and other adaptive cycles.

Part of the permit fees are going into SDOT exploring its own partnership, but if companies add adaptive cycle options, there’s a fleet bonus in it.

Another issue with bike-share companies is accessibility for lower-income riders—which means not only lowered cost, but availability to those without smart phones or bank accounts. Miller said that SDOT would be looking for plans to serve those communities in the permitting plans, and will also be working with the Department of Neighborhoods “to have an ongoing outreach and engagement program with the community liaisons.”

SDOT isn’t mandating or regulating a certain ratio of e-bikes to conventional bikes. “We do really like the mobility benefits of the e-bikes, [but] we really like the cost of the conventional bikes,” said Miller. “So rather than take a hard stance… we’re going to see what the market does.”

There is one hard-baked low-income fare requirement, though: If a company has more than 50 percent e-bikes in its fleet, it’ll need to have a low-income fare requirement. “This will something well have a little more control over” than current low-income systems by Spin and Lime, Miller explained. “If they [just] have it and check a box, that won’t be acceptable.”

Geographic equity will also be built into the permit.

“As more bikes were launched they did spread naturally throughout the city,” said Miller. “But we will have permit requirements where bike companies consciously balance to the edges,” he added—especially areas with equity concerns.

Equipment

Other than stricter maintenance standards that come along with the third-party audits, equipment requirements won’t be changing from the initial pilot. Of particular interest with new rules governing e-bikes statewide: The speed limit on e-bikes won’t be increasing above the current 15.

“[Lime] voluntarily launched at a speed at 14.8 and we just really saw that as comfortable, that it didn’t need to go faster,” said Miller. “There was no justification to make them faster than that.”

Since e-bikes will stay under 20, that would make them eligible for riding on trails in an upcoming pilot program to allow slower e-bikes on certain trails.

As with the pilot, all bikes have to meet federal and international sets of safety guidelines. Bikes also have to comply with Washington’s bike light laws, which currently require a white light in the front and a rear reflector in the back.

With other cities where bike-share companies operate getting electric scooters, it makes sense to expect them to come to Seattle soon. But for the immediate future, said Miller, that’s not going to happen.

“We want to keep those two conversations separate,” said Miller. “We’re not looking to allow scooters.”

Next steps

SDOT will present its program representations at the Seattle City Council’s transportation committee meeting on Tuesday, July 17, and Mayor Jenny Durkan will introduce legislation to approve the new fee schedule. While the council doesn’t have to approve the permit program itself—just the fee piece—electeds will still be briefed.

Still, the new fee schedule needs to be approved for the full program to start. First, the program will have to be approved by both the committee and full council, then be signed by Durkan.

But so far, things look good for the program, at least according to SDOT. Spokesperson Mafara Hobson told us that the mayor was personally briefed and “gave us the stamp of approval”—an exchange that was confirmed by the mayor’s office.

This article has been updated to correct the sponsor of the legislation.