Washington, DC's shared mobility journey has been underscored by a number of colorful happenings: a long trail of email exchanges, appearances (and disappearances) of Chinese startups and a viral inflamed scooter.
The city, which ranks as one of the fittest in the United States, pioneered docked bike-shares with its Capital Bikeshare program in 2010. It was also among the first to welcome dockless bikes and scooters in 2017, embracing the devices as they quickly overwhelmed other cities.
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) earned high marks for striking a middle ground, satisfying docked and dockless companies as well as their customers. Rather than instituting an outright ban or issuing unlimited permits to dockless companies, the city strategically listened to public feedback to increase ridership.
Implementing a successful shared mobility program does not have to be a headache. The takeaway from DC's story centers on partnering, cooperating and holding dockless companies accountable in tangible ways.
An early worry was that the vehicles would undermine Capital Bikeshare ridership. But a report by the DC government said dockless bikes and scooters were "additive" to Capital Bikeshare. During the period studied, there were as many as 400,000 rides a month on the established docked system. Their dockless peers saw as high as 100,000 rides a month.
National ridership skyrocketed to 84 million rides last year according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). In DC, approximately 14,000 rides are taken each day on dockless bikes and scooters, according to DDOT.
It's difficult to quantify how many cars are off the road because of the dockless devices, but officials said it has made a difference. A recent study from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) found that more than half (52%) of residents walk, bike or use transit to get to work.
"We were enthusiastic about the idea of shared dockless mobility," DDOT Director Jeff Marootian told Smart Cities Dive. "It's something that we spent a lot of time thinking about from a regulatory standpoint, but also thinking about ways that it could really complement our current shared bike system."
Where it all began
The conversations around dockless bikes and scooters began rather routinely in June 2017, according to emails released by DDOT under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Several China-based dockless bike companies had their eyes on the DC market. But it was Jillian Irvin, with public policy for Beijing-based dockless bike company Mobike, who emailed agency staff on June 13, seeking permission to place 200 bikes in downtown bike racks.
Mobike was founded in 2015 and was valued at $3 billion by 2017. It had expanded to Singapore and would reach Japan and the United Kingdom in subsequent months.
At this stage, Mobike appeared to have big ambitions for its DC operations.
"We are very committed to covering the entire district, but think it makes sense to start downtown and get data on usage and make sure people are using bike racks properly before proactively placing bikes throughout the city," Irvin wrote in her initial email to DDOT.
In a separate email on July 3, Rob Hawkins, of Counsel at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, floated the idea of the city becoming Mobike's U.S. headquarters as the firm helped the company navigate DC government. That headquarters plan died when the company left the city the following year.
DDOT staffers seemed intrigued, according to the emails, but were concerned with legal considerations. Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT's chief project delivery officer, said in a previous email that "residents and businesses consistently express concerns about bikes languishing for long periods in public space," which he said went a long way to explain the popularity of Capital Bikeshare.
After receiving advice from Glenn Dubin, DDOT's assistant general counsel, Zimbabwe raised concerns about three sections of city code:
- One that forbids someone from securing a bike for more than 12 hours
- One that says a locked bike must "not obstruct or unduly impede traffic or pedestrian movement"
- One that forbids the leaving of "any goods, wares, or merchandise either in or upon any street, avenue, alley, highway, footway, sidewalk, parking, or other public space in the District for a period longer than two (2) hours."
In an email to Zimbabwe and colleagues, Hawkins said it appeared that regulation dated from 1897.
"The regs themselves appear to have been written at a time when there was a concern that public space might be used to store kegs, crates and barrels or to saw wood," he wrote, acknowledging the concerns and suggesting the two sides sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to provide Mobike the authority to operate.
"Last year's kegs are this year's dockless bike-share," Zimbabwe wrote in response to Hawkins, a reference to how seemingly dated laws are still applicable.
Emails circulated around DDOT indicated support from advocacy groups like the Washington Area Bicycling Association (WABA). Executive Director Greg Billing also took part in a trial ride with DC Council Member Mary Cheh and Mobike representatives.
In a recent interview with Smart Cities Dive, Billing said WABA has long viewed dockless bike-share as a way to get more people on bikes and help areas not served by Capital Bikeshare.
"... [W]e certainly didn't want to cause any sort of irreparable damage to Capital Bikeshare just because there's been so many years of investment and a lot of infrastructure both physical and team and to make that system work," Billing said.
"Last year's kegs are this year's dockless bike-share."
Chief project delivery officer, DDOT
When DDOT announced on Aug. 31 that a six-month demonstration project would kick off around Sept. 20, other dockless companies, including Spin, expressed interest.
The following week, Lime — then known as LimeBike — announced plans to launch during the demonstration period, while reports of Mobike arriving in the city started to hit Chinese media. Zimbabwe and others tempered expectations by noting that they had not yet issued permits.
Sept. 20 marked the official kick-off of the dockless bike-share program in DC, incidentally also the same day Capital Bikeshare launched in 2010. With the companies holding kick-off events across the city, DDOT officials decided to stay away from all of them to avoid showing bias toward a company.
Instead, a simple email marked their arrival: "They are here," Matthew Marcou, DDOT's associate director for its Public Space Regulations Division, wrote to colleagues.
By mid-October, ofo, Spin, Lime, Mobike and Jump were operating bikes in the city, with the test of public sentiment still ahead under the six-month demonstration period.
2017: The beginnings
Mobike approaches DC about initial rollout
Chinese company Mobike first expressed interest in having 200 bikes downtown in an email to DDOT staffers, and also having its US headquarters in the city.
Spin expresses interest in permit
Another dockless bike-share company, Spin, says it wants in on the pilot program and wishes to obtain a permit.
DDOT announces demonstration period
DDOT announces it would hold a demonstration period in September to last through April 2018, with the opportunity for the public to provide feedback.
Ofo expresses interest in demo period
Another Chinese-based dockless bike-share company, ofo, emails DDOT to say it is interested in participating in the pilot program.
Lime announced interest in demo period
Lime, at that time known as LimeBike, announces publicly it plans to launch service during the pilot period.
Demonstration period begins
The initial demonstration period in the city begins, with operators limited to 400 bikes apiece. Jump, Mobike, Spin and ofo are the initial four to take part.
2018: The program grows
Pilot program extended
DDOT announces the dockless demonstration will be extended through August, to give staff more time to evaluate the program.
Survey launched on dockless vehicles
DDOT announces the dockless demonstration will be extended through August, to give staff more time to evaluate the program.
Ofo pulls out of DC
As part of a nationwide draw-down, ofo announced it would scale back its U.S. operations and pull out of DC and other cities, blaming onerous regulations.
Mobike follows suit
Days later, Mobike said it would do the same amid a reorganization, also blaming regulatory challenges in U.S. cities.
Companies pivot to scooters
Scooters overtake bikes in popularity, with companies like Lime and Spin taking their bikes off the streets altogether.
Dockless program extended
At the conclusion of the demonstration period, DDOT announced it would continue its dockless vehicle program through December, with a plan to make further tweaks for 2019.
Operators for 2019 announced
DDOT announces 10 permits to operate dockless bikes and scooters in the city in 2019, with several companies to operate both types of vehicle.
2019: Next steps
Fleet cap expanded
Operators can now add up to 300 bikes and 435 scooters after DDOT raised the cap, although only Jump decides to add bikes while others add scooters.
First fatality in DC
Carlos Sanchez-Martin, 20, is killed while riding a scooter in the Dupont Circle neighborhood after being struck by an SUV.
Other Key Coverage
Rise of the scooters and regulations
It didn't take long for residents, elected leaders and interested parties to have a say in the dockless bikes popping up across town.
"We put in place a structure that would allow for companies to pilot their technology in the city, allow for our residents and visitors to utilize that technology, and to give us feedback about how they viewed it and how they thought it could potentially add to their daily travel throughout the District," Marootian said.
Some members of the federal government had concerns about dockless bikes being used on the National Mall with its memorials to presidents and wars. Zimbabwe and Tammy Stidham, the National Park Service's (NPS) chief for planning, compliance and GIS in the National Capital Region, had a testy exchange on the first day of the dockless bike-share pilot.
"NPS will not allow bikes to interfere with visitor safety, orderly management of the park or presents a threat to park resources," Stidham wrote. "So bikes that are parked/left in locations outside of designated bike racks will be considered abandoned and would be impounded."
Zimbabwe replied noting the agency can only govern the city's public space, not the federal government's, but emphasized to companies the need to educate riders on where to park. He added that geofencing technology to prevent riding on the National Mall was being introduced, and that a meeting between the city, federal government and companies may be in the offing.
"And I think it may end up taking some bikes getting impounded for [riders] to get the message," Zimbabwe continued. "There's no District liability for anything related to the program, so I have no worries about NPS taking whatever enforcement action is necessary."
In the ensuing months, there was debate in the community, with many raising concerns about bikes being left in the public right-of-way and cluttering sidewalks. Some residents suggested calling the police on people using the bikes.
The five dockless bike-share systems were used almost 50,000 times in October and November each, then around 33,000 times in December and 29,000 in January, according to data provided to Smart Cities Dive by DDOT spokesman Terry Owens. Despite some hiccups, DDOT announced an extension to the initial demonstration project in late April 2018 to finish in August 2018.
But even in early 2018, city streets changed.
Mobike and ofo, two companies that took part in DDOT's initial pilot, backed out within days of each other, part of a broader trend that saw them scale back global ambitions. In July 2018, they announced plans to exit the U.S., with ofo also blaming its demise on onerous municipal regulations.
Those companies were quickly replaced by a new phenomenon: dockless scooters. By the time DDOT re-upped the pilot program, Bird, Lime and Skip (then known as Waybots) were operating scooters in the city. Community advocates were surprised by how quickly they caught on, even as the vehicles arrived in the city without permission.
"I'll be honest, I was quite surprised at both just sort of the willingness and the quick adoption in DC of scooters for legitimate transportation for trips that are probably two to three miles at most, for a lot of people doing trips that are not served conveniently by transit and probably just a little bit too far to walk," Billing said.
But trouble was brewing as DDOT continued to pilot dockless vehicles and put together proposed regulations.
In their initial dealings with the city, Spin officials raised early concerns about a 400-vehicle cap. An email from public policy head Brian No on Sept. 13, 2017, said that the 400 vehicles in each of DC's eight wards would be more appropriate, given the company's experiences in Seattle, which had a 500-vehicle limit citywide and saw most stay in the downtown core.
And in an open letter in late July 2018, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, DC Sierra Club, DC Sustainable Transportation, Greater Greater Washington and WABA called for 20,000 shared bikes and scooters in the city to encourage equity and get more people out of their cars.
Those requests and the need to balance them with the desire to uphold Capital Bikeshare and take into account some residents' opposition, clearly weighed on DDOT as it released a proposed set of regulations in November 2018, with a new cap of 600 vehicles per operator.
The regulations also included requirements for a locking mechanism on all vehicles, and mandated that they be outfitted with unique identifiers. Companies were also required to share data and make a minimum number of bikes or scooters available in all eight wards of the city.
The pace of expansion came under fire, as did rules.
In a letter to DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, dockless operator Bird's Head of Government Partnerships David Estrada said the new regulations "would render it impossible for any provider to serve the DC community and truly advance the shared mission of reducing short car trips."
During the LA CoMotion conference in Los Angeles last November, Marootian was joined on a panel by YJ Fischer, Bird's head of government partnerships, who said that cities must be mindful of underserved areas.
"[If] you have cities that are limiting the number of vehicles you can bring in, then we start talking about absence of ubiquity," Fischer said during the panel. "That becomes a thing of how many scooters are you actually going to have in a transportation desert ...We really do need to create a kind of ubiquity that then allows us to solve those kinds of transportation deserts."
In response, Marootian said a dynamic cap and the opportunity to raise it more slowly than other cities "would give us the opportunity to get a number of fixed devices on the street and grow that number based on utilization, based on other types of data that we input into that formula."
"There are a number of factors that input into what that dynamic figure would look like," Marootian continued. "We think that's a fairly thoughtful, reasonable, deliberative way to go about this that very much represents the public feedback that we've gotten from residents in the District of Columbia."
The next stage
The first half of 2019 is notable for the domination of scooters over dockless bikes, as demonstrated by news of operators ditching their bike fleets completely for scooters.
DDOT announced its 2019 program would consider permits for 12 companies. Many more companies had been approved to have scooters than dockless bikes. The new permitting year also allowed the total number of vehicles on city streets to reach 16,800 — 1,400 each — if they all met certain requirements.
That expansion continued in late April, with the announcement that certain operators would add bikes and scooters after meeting criteria around compliance, equity, safety and data sharing. But even as the dockless bike and scooter program continue to expand, issues around safety and equity of access need resolving.
"How can we make our road network safer and less car-focused? That is going to be an ongoing discussion for our city in a very aggressive way."
Mayor, Washington, DC
Those safety concerns were thrown into fresh focus in September 2018, when an SUV struck and killed pedestrian Carlos Sanchez-Martin as he rode a Lime in the city's Dupont Circle neighborhood. That death and others in recent months have advocates pushing harder for infrastructure to support cycling and scooters.
"That [effort] is primarily because the streets have not been designed for bicycling," Billing said. "And so if we really want to make walking, biking and scooters a viable option for more of the public we have to build a much larger scale connected network of low-stress streets and protected bike lanes. And that's really going to be the only real way to expand the ridership and to the type of riders that we're hoping to encourage to bike or to ride scooters."
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said at the National League of Cities' State of the Cities event earlier this year that a lot of work lies ahead.
"[W]e're at a level of maturity with bikes and bike-sharing especially, that our road network has to keep up with the number of users that we have, and that's a very important discussion going on in our city right now," Bowser told Smart Cities Dive. "How can we make our road network safer and less car-focused? That is going to be an ongoing discussion for our city in a very aggressive way."
City leaders and providers must also contend with the need to provide equitable access, especially to some of DC's lowest-income neighborhoods and residents.
Chris Dattaro, DC market manager for Lyft Bikes & Scooters, told Smart Cities Dive in an email that the company is working with the business improvement district in the city's Anacostia neighborhood on a series of initiatives, including "improving infrastructure, deepening community engagement and increasing ridership." Similarly, a spokesperson for Uber, which owns Jump, said the company is committed to increasing awareness on safe riding practices.
Marootian said that while there is work to be done, initial signs of the program are good.
"The most important thing that we did was listen to the public and create a structure that allowed for consistent public feedback and engagement," Marootian said. "That helped us very early on identify issues that we needed to resolve, and it also showed us where there are potential opportunities to improve the program going forward."