In some cities across the United States, the rentable bikes ubiquitous on Seattle sidewalks are vanishing. Popping up in their place: scooters.
But in Seattle, thousands of the bikes are still on the streets and scooters are banned.
“Seattle is the last city with a large fleet of dockless bike share,” said Nicole Payne, a program manager at the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). Payne authored a new report about 2018 bike- and scooter-share operations around the country.
The analysis illustrates how quickly scooters have grown from being virtually nonexistent in 2017. By the end of 2018, more than 85,000 electric foot scooters were available in about 100 cities.
Dockless bikes, meanwhile, grew fast over the course of 2017 and the start of 2018 but then sharply decreased by the end of last year, according to NACTO. Most cities with robust bike-share systems use docks, where the bikes are returned to a fixed location.
Seattle once had a docked system, but it struggled with a limited network and low ridership and the city killed it in 2017. Under the city’s new free-floating system, bikes are often easy to find in the core of the city, though their reliability varies.
“One of the issues we found with dockless in many cities was the reliability of the system,” Payne said. “With station-based, you can be pretty confident there will be a bike. With dockless, it’s much more of a toss up.”
The free-floating nature of Seattle’s bike share brings other concerns, like bikes blocking sidewalks. This year, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is monitoring how the private bike-share companies deal with problem parking.
In February, for instance, Jump and Lime received 75 total reports of improperly parked bikes, according to the city. Both companies responded to more than 80% of the reports in the time frame required by the city, according to SDOT data. The agency promises more data about its audits this month.
Between December and February, Lime and Jump deployed between 5,000 and 7,000 bikes total on Seattle streets each week, according to SDOT. Riders took between 8,000 and 28,000 trips per week in that time frame, with a severe dip during February, when the region saw record-breaking snowfall.
Bike share has “helped normalize biking in Seattle,” said Vicky Clarke, Seattle Policy Manager at the Cascade Bicycle Club. Dockless systems allow the bike placement to be driven by demand instead of pre-emptively having to choose where to set up the stations, Clarke said.
“People are desperate for new ways to get around,” Clarke said. “Looking at what people want and trying to provide those options is a smart way to evolve our transportation system into one that actually leaves fewer and fewer people out.”
A data point from NACTO’s research that shouldn’t surprise Seattleites: People love electric bikes.
Of Seattle’s two bike-share companies, Jump is entirely electric. Lime has offered both types of bikes but said in documents filed with the city it plans to move to 100% e-bike “by early 2019.”
E-bikes have the highest number of rides per bike per day, according to NACTO’s research, and in some places are used twice as frequently as pedal bikes. Bike share companies are responding accordingly.
“In San Francisco,” NACTO’s report notes, “ e-bikes were introduced in May and comprised a third of the fleet by the end of the year.”
The shift to scooters is largely the result of private company whims, according to NACTO. Companies that drove the dockless bike trend, like Lime and Spin, have shifted their focus to scooters in some cities and other new scooter-only companies are showing up.
Scooters can appeal to people who don’t use bike share. In Portland, nearly three-fourths of scooter users had never rented from Portland’s bike-share service and 42% had never bicycled, according to a report by the city.
Shifting to scooters only works, of course, when cities allow the companies to trade bikes for scooters. Scooters are not yet allowed in Seattle.
Mayor Jenny Durkan has said she worries about the safety of the devices. In December, SDOT asked scooter companies interested in operating here for data about how they’ve deployed them elsewhere and about injuries in those cities. SDOT also asked the companies whether they would indemnify the city in scooter-related lawsuits.
In the state Legislature, meanwhile, lawmakers passed a bill this year to allow local governments to regulate scooters and restrict the speed of scooters on roads and bike lanes to 15 miles an hour.
In other cities, scooters are proving more expensive to rent than bikes, according to the report. The average scooter trip costs $3.50 and travels less than a mile and a half. All types of bike trips are cheaper on average for the same or longer average distance.
As bike and scooter companies proliferate, “cities are worried about creating a two-tiered system where folks with lower incomes don’t have access to these services,” Payne said.
Some cities require the bikes and scooters to be available in various neighborhoods or require the companies to offer discounts based on income. Seattle mandates that bike-share operators make at least 10% of bikes available in certain areas of north, central and south Seattle and make materials available in multiple languages.
About 30% of bike and scooter systems offer membership discounts for people with low incomes, NACTO found, though such programs for scooters have been “unevenly advertised.”