Q&A: Alex Baca talks dockless bike share and the role of cities

by Stefani Cox

Today’s conversation is with Alex Baca, a writer and bike advocate, as well as former general manager for Cleveland’s bike share system. Her recent article in CityLab covered the dockless bike share boom, and we followed up to hear more of her thoughts on this new model and how cities might approach regulation.

Alex Baca profile pic
Profile picture courtesy of Alex Baca.

Q: What do you think of the current conversation on traditional bike share models versus dockless bike share?

A: I think bike share is in this funny spot—it’s public transportation, but the bikes are also seen as an amenity. No one can comfortably land on which bucket it’s in. If you understand bike share systems as public transportation systems, then it follows that they might not be profitable, and may need to be subsidized. But lots of companies—operators, vendors—are in bike share to make a profit. That’s not a new thing emerging with dockless.

New York City’s Citi Bike and D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare are really popular, and sometimes people seem to think of bike share as if all systems are like that. But there are more than 119 bike share systems in the U.S., and the vast majority are not like Citi Bike—which, it should be said, does not comprehensively cover New York, and is not actually publicly funded. The D.C. region, for its part, continues to invest public money in Capital Bikeshare, and has made siting stations in a geographically diverse fashion one priority. I think dockless has made people view what I call these “legacy systems” as unalloyed public goods with no profit motives whatsoever, but, as I wrote in the CityLab piece, the existing systems aren’t always purely public. There are private operators and often sponsors involved.

In Cleveland, our bike share system is on the ground due to a ton of cooperation between a ton of different entities—nonprofits, family foundations, individual donors, a title sponsor, a private operator, the city of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County governments. But there are only 29 stations across about 80 miles of land, and about 380,000 people—29 stations does not cut it. There’s definitely demand for more bike share, but the existing equipment is pretty expensive. The real innovation with dockless is that it’s much cheaper than most of the existing equipment out there.

Cleveland’s system, like a lot of bike share systems, was planned to put stations out at common destinations. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if there’s a more convenient option than bike share, like taking the bus or ride share or, more likely, driving your own car, you are not going to go out of your way for bike share. And you’re not going to do that especially if there isn’t bike share near where your trip is originating. Dockless takes away some of the barriers to expanding these systems.

Q: What do you think bike share needs in order to thrive in this day and age?

A: Like I said, there has been so much variation in terms of intent and funding capacity. I do think what bike share can be in a given place starts with organizational goals. And I think bike share, docked or not, can and should be shaped by public-sector intentions that prioritize users, and potential users, of these systems. Previously, that may have meant adequately funding systems so that they are comprehensive and equitable and accessible, which—and I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, because it is really hard to launch these systems—hasn’t really happened.

Now that the industry is shifting toward operators owning and deploying their own bikes, I think what bike share needs is for municipalities to heavily, heavily invest in, first, staff time to manage this stuff, and second, public infrastructure—bike racks, on-street bike corrals, bike lanes—to harness what dockless can bring. And responding to complaints about dockless from vocal minorities, like, “Oh, I don’t like how the bikes look on sidewalks,” is not a good way to manage this stuff.

I would love to see governments think very seriously about how to make dockless work really well for users, so that more people use the bikes. If a city has climate or sustainability or Vision Goals, it will be such a massive missed opportunity to not redirect people from driving, and even ride share, to bikes, and scooters, and whatever. Any regulations should be designed to shape private companies’ behavior with the interests of users in mind.

I know that a lot of municipalities want to protect the investments they’ve made in their existing bike share systems. I totally get that. In Cleveland, it was not easy to bring a bike share system online; I am sure the story is similar in other places. But I don’t think that dockless is going to take away from systems that are already out there. I truly believe that there’s a ton of untapped demand for more ways to get around places, and cities don’t need to be scared of dockless. I really bet that it will increase ridership across the board.

Q: How would you address the issue of getting enough density with bike share systems and does dockless affect that equation?

A: Either cities can pay for more of the kind of equipment that they have—and that will have to happen with public funds, or through sponsorship, or a combination—or they can hope the private sector fills the void. It seems like, right now, the latter is happening. I would love a bike share station, or some sort of access to bike share, on every corner. I think that’s probably more possible with dockless than with anything else.

Dockless is fascinating to me because it’s a low-stakes way for cities to regulate something private to the benefit of public users. Of course the venture capital behind these companies is a black box. But cities can’t do anything about that. What they can do is institute performance standards, rebalancing requirements, etc., for private operators. They can install the public infrastructure, like parking, that can act as an anchor point for dockless. I do think that cities should invest in that—people riding their own bikes need more bike parking and safe places to ride their bikes. Dockless isn’t at odds with any of this stuff just because it’s a little different than what we’re used to.

I always had my own bike when I lived in D.C., and I was kind of a brat about bike share! I never rode it. Even though Capital Bikeshare is such an amazing system, it didn’t make sense for me based on my lifestyle and my choices, and that was totally fine. I use CaBi way more now when I’m back visiting. I want more people to have more options. That goes beyond bikes. It’s scooters. It’s transit. It’s walking. It’s taking the bus. Dockless adds more options for more people. That’s really important. Once again, if your city has any sort of climate, sustainability, or health and safety goals, transportation has to be a part of that. Prioritizing people who aren’t driving, and building infrastructure that supports that choice, is a huge piece of that equation.

Q: Do you think bike share should be regulated? If so, in what ways?

A: As I said, cities can regulate—or shape, or manage, or whatever. And I think it has to be user-focused. Better Bike Share and PeopleForBikes and NACTO have, of course, developed best-practice guidelines for legacy bike share. I am sure that those kinds of guidelines will start to emerge once people get used to dockless. And I hope it expands to all micromobility devices, not just bikes.

I think it is really critical to have a place to put stuff. I think people react very well to that, and cities—not private companies—should be the ones to provide that. I am bullish on parking for dockless, first and foremost. Telling the dockless operators to keep their bikes neat to appease complaints about that is going to be futile without designating places for dockless bikes to go—yes, I get this is sort of like providing “docks” for dockless bikes, but I want to see it done at a much greater scale, like, taking a parking space per block and converting it to a bike corral. So I think regulations start with cities not so much with regulations on paper. Regulations start with providing a physical place to which they can literally direct private operators. And like I said, this benefits everyone.

Beyond that, I think cities should absolutely demand data and use that to plan, and to justify (or not!) increases in accommodations for bikes. I mean, cities can regulate whatever they want. That’s the power of the public sector. But I would just hope that this prioritizes users, and potential and future users. I hope cities take advantage of dockless rather than seeing it as something that they don’t really want to deal with. Regulations should make dockless better, not reduce it.

Q: What is the role of equity for bike share, especially with dockless systems?

A: Private companies are not going to take steps to be “equitable” unless they perceive it as financially lucrative or unless they are required to do so. Title VI, under the Civil Rights Act, has specific implications for transit agencies, related to public input and service, when they re-plan routes. A private company does not necessarily have to do that.

I am not sure that bike share equity has been done particularly well in an objective sense. There are certainly notable programs. Philadelphia’s is referenced a lot, as it should be! But many of these programs focus predominantly on payment. That makes sense on its face: Some people don’t have bank cards or smartphones, and lots of systems require bank cards or smartphones to get going.

But fundamentally, addressing equity through payment means you’re only making what exists equitable. And a lot of systems don’t have comprehensive networks. Addressing bike share equity through payment, predominantly, feels like trying to shoehorn equity into something that is not itself equitable. It’s not really addressing the underlying issue, which has, in my opinion, more to do with where the stations are, and how many of them there are, and if they meaningfully connect to where people need to go. Telling people to go through multiple steps to sign up for an “equitable” payment program when there are no stations near them, or if they have to go to a specific location to do so, does not feel particularly accessible to me.

I think that a drastically increased volume of bikes, which dockless can provide, can break through on bike share equity in ways that existing systems have not been able to do. But it’s on governments to ask for what they’d like to see.

I would be remiss in talking about equity without saying that we are desperately in need of more, safe, dedicated bike infrastructure—everywhere. And that has nothing to do with dockless, or bike share in generally, really, and won’t be solved with dockless or any other form of bike share. It is purely on cities to reallocate space away from cars and their drivers to everyone else: people who can’t or don’t drive, people on bikes, people on foot, people who can’t or don’t walk or bike. We know that women and people of color ride more when they feel safe on the road. Any sort of bike share equity stems fundamentally from making our roads not just more equitable, but much, much more safe for people who are on those bike share bikes.

Q: Any thoughts on the issue of bike clutter?

A: Once again, I would like to see dockless regulations designed with users in mind. I think bike clutter is very visible, and people are reacting to that visibility. But there are lots of things on streets, and sidewalks, at any given time. Cars park on sidewalks. I saw a giant plush stuffed horse abandoned on the sidewalk a few weeks ago! It’s not just bikes. A dose of relativity would be helpful here.

As for putting caps on bikes, limiting the number of operators—does that really serve users, or is that just a response to complaints about bike clutter, which may or may not be a problem? This is why I think giving people places to put dockless bikes, like in on-street bike corrals, is essential to harnessing this.

Q: How  about data sharing?

A: Operators should be required to share their data. And they should be required to share their APIs. I get that this is not a sexy thing, but if these systems are operating in the public realm we should know about how they work, especially geographically and demographically, and about usage. And planners need to respond to what that data is telling them—especially if it’s in line with stated organizational goals about climate or safety—not to what is politically popular.

Q: What about Uber’s acquisition of JUMP?

I think it’s something to watch. JUMP is not the only ebike product out there, but they have branded themselves well. They’re definitely capitalizing on their differentiators. As an aside, though, I think that cities should commit to concepts, not to companies. I get that administrators who are very tired of hearing complaints about bike clutter like JUMP because JUMP bikes lock to things. But let users—yes, seriously, the marketplace—decide whether they want to use JUMP more or less than any other dockless provider. That goes back to needing to see data from these companies, too.

Beyond that: I find it interesting that Uber pivoted super-quickly from very visibly testing self-driving cars to acquiring a bike share system. Uber—which is not a profitable company—clearly gets that short trips in cars are not profitable. I thought ebikes were extremely dorky until I rode one, and then I realized that they could be a huge gamechanger. I think people who are not the prototypical “strong and confident” riders could really have the way they move transformed by easier access to ebikes, which are a little too expensive to just buy on one’s own.

Overall, I so badly want to see more people who don’t want to drive or don’t have to drive find that there are other options that work as well or better. Bike share, walking, transit, and ride share is all part of that. On the private side, we’re going to see a lot more interesting acquisitions and rollouts of things that we maybe can’t imagine right now. On the public side, I’d just really like to see administrators take this seriously and realize that dockless, done well for as many people as possible, could be truly transformative.

The Better Bike Share Partnership is funded by The JPB Foundation as a collaborative between the City of Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to build equitable and replicable bike share systems. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or sign up for our weekly newsletter.