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Seattle will implement long-term rules for private bike shares

With the City Council’s rubber stamp on the fee schedule, a permanent program is all set to go

Ken 18/Shutterstock

Monday, the City Council approved new fees for bike-share operators in Seattle, meaning that the city’s new rules governing the free-floating bicycles will pop into effect soon.

Bikes currently on the streets of Seattle 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.

Earlier this month, SDOT put together rules for a new program, including a fee structure that needed to be approved. The City Council largely approved the changes—making some modifications to include bikes that are more accessible to people with disabilities, like adaptive cycles and hand trikes. As a condition of the fee approval, the council requested written, quarterly reports through the end of 2019 on installing bike parking, and a written plan for “sidewalk management and safety, addressing the increasing use of fast-moving electric-motor devices on sidewalks” by the end of this year.

With fees in place, new rules can take effect, although we’re still waiting to hear back from SDOT about a more definite timeline.

And because 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 put it speaking with Curbed Seattle in mid-July, “equity, parking, and rider behavior.”

For the permanent program, SDOT is sticking with the same basic model as the pilot: annual permits that need to be renewed each year. With the new program coming into effect soon, they will all have to rebid to keep their spot on city streets—although Ofo dropping out of the Seattle means perhaps less competition.

While the goal is to have a program that’s adjustable, SDOT wants to start the new program with a cap of four operators and 20,000 bikes on the street (Seattle had around 10,000 at the end of the pilot period). While each permit would allow an operator 5,000 bikes, an operator could be granted up to an extra 1,000 as incentive for adaptive cycles. (Meanwhile, the city is exploring its own options for rolling out adaptive cycles.)

Companies would have to pay fees totaling $50 per year for each new bike on the street, prorated by month and capping at $250,000 once a company reaches 5,000 bikes on the street. The City Council granted SDOT authority to lower fees if the cost of administration ends up being less.

For potential permittees, said Miller earlier this month, “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?”

A demonstrated ability to meet scale and operate safely matters, said Miller, but the submitted plans will count for a lot.

While the City Council has requested updates on the bike-share parking situation—SDOT acknowledges that one of the major problems during the pilot was proper parking of the bikes—the new rules will also attempt to hold operators accountable for bad user behavior, evaluated by a third-party audit. Failure to comply could result in penalties like fleet reductions.

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.”

SDOT will also be expanding its efforts to clarify where bikes can be parked—and will create new spaces outside the public right-of-way, including expanding on a pilot program that added designated bike-share parking to some sidewalks in Ballard and keeping bike-share bikes in mind while installing end-of-block bike corrals.

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. 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.

Because e-bikes are expensive, if a company has more than 50 percent e-bikes in its fleet, it’ll need to have a low-income fare requirement.

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.

Lime, the second company to debut shared bikes in Seattle—and the only one currently operating e-bikes—expressed enthusiasm in an emailed statement.

We’ll absolutely be applying for bike-share permits when they become available next month,” Gabriel Scheer, Director for Strategic Development at Lime, “and plan to continue to serve this city and beyond with viable, accessible and affordable mobility options.”

Spin did not immediately return a request for comment. Ofo, meanwhile, announced late last week that they’d be leaving Seattle—and while that comes as the company withdraws from many U.S. cities, Seattle General Manager Lina Feng told Seattle Bike Blog that the “exorbitant fees that accompany these new regulations ... make it impossible for ofo to operate.” Feng said Ofo would not be seeking a permit.

In the meantime, Uber-owned, electric-only bike-share outfit Jump has been exploring moving into Seattle. Spokesperson Nathan Hambley said in an emailed statement that Uber is still making sure that the regulations can support Jump bikes.

“For trips less than one mile in flat areas, pedal bikes may be attractive, but for commuters or those traveling longer distances or on hilly routes, adequately-powered e-bikes make more sense,” said Hambley. “We’re hopeful we can bring Jump bikes to Seattle, but we’re still waiting to review the final permit regulations.”