I was recently in South Bend for a Notre Dame football game and noted the stunning number of visitors getting around on identical lime green bikes. Students were riding them, drunk tailgaters were hopping from spot to spot and leaving them anywhere they liked, I probably saw close to 100 bikes over a couple hour span. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is one of the new dockless bike sharing systems in action, LimeBike. I’ve written on Ann Arbor’s bikeshare system, ArborBike, in the past, but as I looked upon more LimeBike riders in a two hour period than I see ArborBikers in an average summer month in Ann Arbor, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the future for our town.
ArborBike is a bike sharing system relying on stations, in this case 13 of them across the greater downtown area. It’s theoretically a great idea and has worked extremely well in larger cities like New York, London and Chicago. The issues here in Ann Arbor are the relatively short travel distances, lack of quality bike infrastructure, and limited number of stations and bikes as a result of high upfront costs.
A dockless system solves virtually all of those problems. It works just like it sounds, bikes are picked up and left virtually anywhere, preferred locations are sidewalks and other reasonable places, there are fines for leaving a bike in the street or other dangerous spot. There’s usually a set reasonable radius as well, nice work biking to Milan but you probably couldn’t leave the bike there. Users locate bikes with an app on their phone and rides typically cost $1 for 30 minutes or an hour with longer term plans available as well. There are a litany of new startups in the space, the aforementioned LimeBike is one, others include MoBike, Spin, Ofo and JUMP. As opposed to heavily subsidized public systems, these are for-profit enterprises eagerly deploying in cities, think Uber or Lyft but for bikes.
There are 125 bikes in the ArborBike system three years in, there are already 500 LimeBikes in the South Bend system after just a few months. While ridership data is not currently available, I can say unequivocally, it’s exponentially higher. By foregoing stations and using cheaper, lighter bikes, the system can be implemented and expanded rapidly and cost effectively. LimeBike is a good example as they seem to be somewhat focused on college campuses and towns. In addition to South Bend/Notre Dame, they’re in Greensboro, NC at UNC-Greensboro, Raleigh, NC at North Carolina State University and the University of Washington in Seattle. Dockless bikeshare is already huge in China and is entering the United States in a big way, there are four competing systems operating in Washington, DC alone right now.
With uncertain funding and the future of ArborBike in doubt, it’s time for Ann Arbor officials and the Clean Energy Coalition (operators of ArborBike) to open a dialog with one or more of these companies. I suspect this is already happening as Sean Reed, Executive Director of the CEC, was familiar with the proliferation of dockless systems nearly a year ago. The service can come quickly and I think most would agree that getting more residents and visitors on clean, healthy bikes is a positive thing. Here’s hoping we see an expansive fleet of shareable bikes on the streets of Ann Arbor in the near future.