This is a story about dockless bike sharing, but it begins with a story about Uber. Uber's complicated history with cities has made city officials more willing to push back.
Uber rolled into Seattle about seven years ago. Some people loved it. Other people were really upset.
“There was a ring of taxis surrounding city hall, all honking their horns at the same time, very upset about the prospect of these disruptive players coming in and changing the marketplace for them,” recalled Andrew Glass Hastings, who currently serves as director of Transit and Mobility for Seattle’s Department of Transportation.
That was the low point in Seattle’s relationship with Uber. Glass Hastings said the company “showed up with the intent of being disruptive. That was sort of in their business plan, if you will.”
Uber would dispute that, of course. But at that time, many civil servants did not see Uber as an ally.
Bike sharing could have easily gone the same way. All you have to do is look at China. When dockless bike sharing rolled out there, the public response included a backlash. When the bikes blocked sidewalks, people threw them into huge piles like garbage. These get hauled off by authorities and thrown into much bigger piles outside of town. One photo showed a pile containing thousands of confiscated bikes.
Chinese bike share graveyard a monument to industry's 'arrogance' https://t.co/jIWz3mKmTM
— The Guardian (@guardian) November 25, 2017
Ofo – which owns the yellow bikes in Seattle – was one of those Chinese companies. Its co-founder has said he doesn’t know why people are treating bikes this way.
Seattle didn’t want to end up with a backlash. So the city permitted bike sharing on a trial basis. It set some ground rules. For example, bike share companies have to respond quickly to complaints.
Just this week, I called in a bike that was leaning against a building (that’s against the rules). I dialed the number listed on the bike, and after three minutes of hold music, gave the operator the bike number and the location. You may have seen what happens next: A van drives around, a couple of workers pop out and reposition the bike.
If they don’t, they risk getting in trouble with the city. Glass Hastings told me what that means. “If they don’t comply — if they decide to sort of flaunt the regulations — we can revoke their permit and go down the path of preventing their services from operating,” he said.
Bike share companies seem to be listening. Kyle Lui is an investor in Limebike, through his company DCM Ventures. Limebike owns the green bikes in Seattle. “There’s been a lot of lessons learned from China, and frankly, there’s been a lot of lessons learned from the Ubers and Airbnbs of the world, about how you need to engage cities in a way that works for them,” Lui told me.
Same thing with the orange bikes. “One of the reasons that Spin brought me on was to help navigate that,” said Kyle Rowe. He used to work for the city of Seattle, where his job was regulating bike sharing companies. Now, he works for bike share company Spin.
“My title is ‘head of government partnerships.’ We didn’t want it to be ‘government relations’ – we wanted it to be much more than a relationship, we want to actually have a partnership.” The quality of that partnership comes up for evaluation around the Fourth of July. That’s when Seattle will ask if the relationship is working.
Bike share companies hope cities like Seattle will answer with an enthusiastic “yes.” If cities across America answer differently, bike share investors will have thrown millions of dollars down the toilet.