The Brewing Fight Over Who Controls The New Wave Of Dockless Bike Sharing

A bill working its way through the Florida state legislature would stop cities from being able to regulate dockless bikes, letting the Chinese companies behind the bill flood the market. Other bike-sharing companies are wary–and more eager to work with local governments, because for dockless bike share to work, cities need to have a say.

The Brewing Fight Over Who Controls The New Wave Of Dockless Bike Sharing
[Photo: Flickr user Kiewic]

Following new local regulations in 2016 that required Lyft and Uber to background check drivers in Austin, the two ride-hailing giants decided to pick up and leave the city rather than comply. In their absence, a crop of local companies materialized to take their place. One was RideAustin, which, in contrast to Uber and Lyft, took no commission and allowed its drivers to take home 100% of their earnings (a $2 booking fee offset company costs). It was a little more expensive, but absent Uber and Lyft, the company thrived, and locals valued it for its ethics and inherent Austin-ness. When Uber and Lyft returned to the city last year, though, it began to struggle in the face of the cheaper, more prolific companies, and has had to reduce staff and operations.


The reason the companies were willing to return to Austin wasn’t that they had acquiesced to the city’s demands. Rather, it was because the city wasn’t legally allowed to make the demands anymore, because of an issue called local preemption. The governor of Texas signed a sweeping bill enabling ride-hailing companies to operate anywhere in the state largely without restriction, regardless of local laws like the one in Austin that originally forced the companies out. Proponents of preemption claim that it evens the regulatory landscape across the state, and allows local and state governments to work together more effectively. Its detractors argue that preemption’s one-size-fits-all approach creates legislation that fails to take into account various cities’ particular needs and workings. Besides the latest dust-up in Austin, preemption battles have taken place over minimum-wage and anti-discrimination laws. Now a new local preemption fight is brewing in Florida over bike sharing, as dockless bike companies from China attempt to flood cities–mainly those in south Florida, like Miami–with bikes, over the objections of cities that are interested in bike sharing but want some control over how they grow.

While a number of cities–from large metropolises like New York and Chicago, to smaller cities like Memphis, whose program will launch this year–have rolled out bike-share systems in recent years, they all have docks: fixed locations where users pick up and drop off bikes, whose locations are determined by the city. But a new iteration of the model has materialized in the form of dockless bike-share systems. Developed and distributed by a handful of startups like Spin and LimeBike, and rolled out in cities largely in a scattershot manner, dockless bike share–which lock electronically and can be left anywhere–has simultaneously been praised for adding more bikes to the urban landscape, and also criticized for creating chaos, in the form of bikes filling up cities’ public space.

[Photo: Flickr user Cindy Shebley]
Without local regulations and oversight in place, they technically can be left anywhere–be it in the middle of a public sidewalk, or blocking the entrance to a curb cut whose clearance is necessary for people with disabilities. In response, cities that have seen an influx of dockless bikes have taken a variety of approaches to handling them.

Washington, D.C., for instance, has allowed companies to apply for permits that would cap the number of bikes they distribute at 400, and require that they share data on usage with the city. The District Department of Transportation, says Kim Lucas, DDOT’s bicycle and pedestrian program specialist, oversees mechanical needs, repositions the bikes around the city as necessary to ensure they don’t disrupt public space, and conducts surveys about their impact on the city. Dallas, which welcomed companies including LimeBike and Ofo last year, is now cracking down and mandating that the companies work more closely with the city on maintenance and responding to 311 complaints about errant bikes–terms to which LimeBike recently agreed.

In Florida, the cities of Miami and Key Biscayne got up in arms after LimeBike was launched in the latter in 2017. Early on, some bikes from Key Biscayne were left in Miami, outside of the designated pilot area, which required LimeBike agents to coordinate closely with the cities to ensure the bikes were returned and kept in bounds. The Florida cities began issuing fines to dockless companies whose bikes were left in the public right-of-way, and the Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works was beginning to look into building out a regulatory framework for how the dockless bikes could be managed, as more companies begin to eye the region to roll out their bikes. Part of what they were considering was inking an exclusive deal with one dockless company–Spin–to streamline operations and get a handle on how to effectively and non-disastrously roll out the bikes.

But any progress on local regulation may soon be stopped in its tracks. The Florida legislature is currently in the process of attempting to pass a bill that would allow the state to preempt local control over dockless bike share companies, which, both the North American Bikeshare Association (NABSA) and various bike share companies have argued, would prove disastrous for the productive growth of this new technologies in cities (a similar bill is under consideration in Oklahoma).


The lobbyist behind the Florida legislation is Brian Ballard, who previously lobbied on behalf of Uber for ride-hailing preemption. Ballard, in this case, is representing Ofo, a dockless bike-share company based in China, where its strategy was to get as many bikes in cities as possible in order to maximize profit–a tactic which depends on lack of regulation to succeed, and which likely motivated its unwillingness to capitulate to further restrictions in Dallas. The no-holds-barred proliferation of dockless bikes across China has led to cities like Shanghai–which transportations officials estimated could benefit from around 600,000 publicly available bikes–suddenly coping with three times that number.

[Photo: Flickr user paul.wasneski]
Jeff Branch, legislative advocate for the Florida League of Cities, says municipalities in the state are opposed to the preemption bill, because it would prevent them from taxing the companies, and it wouldn’t allow them adequate say in how the bikes use the public space, or in how many bikes they deploy. So if a bill is that unpopular at the local level, why is it being advanced? One answer: Ballard, a powerful lobbyist who’s frequently worked on behalf of major companies like Google and Honda, is being paid a tidy sum by Ofo, in the hopes of maximizing their revenue through sheer volume.

Ofo and its competitors like Mobike are facing backlash in China, and it’s not a model for growth that should be replicated in other cities. Currently, Ofo has launched in South Miami, alongside a handful of other dockless companies operating in other cities in Miami-Dade county, and they hope to expand their reach both across the state and the country. But their tactics are prompting disapproval not only from city governments, but from other dockless companies as well.

“If you think about it, it’s really the local departments of transportation who know their city’s right of way the best,” says Kyle Rowe, head of government partnerships at Spin, a dockless bike-share company based out of San Francisco and currently operating in over two dozen markets. Rowe previously worked for Seattle’s Department of Transportation, where he oversaw bike infrastructure and usage programming–including collaborations with bike-share companies. “When you think about preemption, what it means is basically the state saying, ‘sorry, Orlando,’ or ‘sorry, Seattle’–you know your community best, but you don’t get to choose how manage the bike parking or how to educate companies about which communities would benefit from better access to bicycles.”

Spin’s approach–hence, Rowe’s title at the company–has always been one of not just communicating with the local governments in whose markets they operate, but actually partnering with them (Citi Bike, New York’s successful docked bike-share system, is set up as a public-private partnership between the bike-share company Motivate and the city). In a recent statement opposing the Florida legislation, Spin remarked that the company “believes that ensuring local communities have a say in how bike share operates within their borders and on its right-of-way is both needed and beneficial, for communities and industry alike.”

By engaging with community and local DOT needs, dockless bike-share companies have an incredible opportunity to advance equity and access to biking. Docked systems like Citi Bike often fail to reach low-income communities, the rationale being that the more solid business plan necessitates starting at the center of the city, and slowly working its way outward. Dockless companies have the advantage of being neighborhood-agnostic. If someone wants or needs to ride a bike home, all they need to do is open the app, find one, and bring it to where they need to go–and leave it there. Rowe is optimistic that if dockless bike-share companies can productively share trip data with city governments, they can work together to figure out how to optimize dockless bike placement and distribution (often called rebalancing) around the city; the local DOTs can, for instance, deploy agents to strategically place bikes at transit stations to up the usage of cycling as a more sustainable, last-mile option to driving. And they can also work to ensure that lower-income neighborhoods without good access to other transit options get priority. The case of Washington, D.C., which is currently playing host to numerous dockless companies and has seen particularly strong usage among younger people of color, is a testament to this need.


Local collaborations between cities and companies could also result in a payment system that could make the bikes more affordable for frequent users–currently, companies like Spin tend to charge around $1 per ride, which is affordable for a one-off, but could tally up to a $40 at the end of a month of two rides per day. With local government input, the dockless companies could begin to build out a membership program–not unlike Citi Bike’s $15-per-month membership, which also offers subsidies for lower-income users–that would help to integrate the bikes as a viable part of the city’s greater transportation network.

With state preemption, cities would be unable to rebalance the dockless bikes in accordance with community need, they would have no jurisdiction over bike maintenance, safety standards, or data-sharing. In a letter of opposition to the Florida legislation, NABSA perhaps put it most clearly in spelling out the consequences of lack of local oversight for dockless bike shares: “Seattle and Dallas–two cities who have experimented with dockless bike share–have experienced bicycles left in the public right of way, inhibiting pedestrian and wheelchair passage, as well as thrown into heaps, placed in trees, or hung on the tops fences, and have experienced significant complaints regarding broken bikes. Seattle and Dallas are both cities that have determined that increased local regulation is necessary to combat these challenges.”

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.