DOT Asks Dockless Bike-Share Companies to Show How They Can Expand Access to Bike-Share in NYC

The agency wants to test the feasibility of dockless bike-share in neighborhoods not currently served by Citi Bike.

Shared bikes in Shanghai. Photo: Mark Gorton
Shared bikes in Shanghai. Photo: Mark Gorton

NYC DOT is officially asking “dockless” bike-share companies to explain how their services could work in areas not currently served by Citi Bike, including in the Bronx and Staten Island, Mayor de Blasio announced this morning.

“New Yorkers have embraced public bike sharing faster than anyone expected,” the mayor said in a statement. “It’s time to take the next big step and bring safe, reliable and affordable bike sharing to even more of the city.”

Unlike a request for proposals, the request for expressions of interest issued by DOT does not indicate that the city is definitely moving forward with dockless bike-share. But it shows that DOT sees dockless bike-share as a potential option for neighborhoods that don’t have access to Citi Bike. And by introducing the possibility of competition and limitations on future turf available to Citi Bike, it may also help the city in negotiations with Motivate about future Citi Bike expansion.

With dockless bike-share services, customers use apps to unlock bikes that aren’t anchored to stations at the beginning and end of each trip, unlike station-based services like Citi Bike. Dockless services also charge per trip, differing from the subscription model of most station-based systems.

Several dockless bike-share companies backed by venture capital are operating at scale in Chinese cities, and they are increasingly active in America too, most notably in Seattle and DC. But there are big question marks about the quality of the equipment, the impact on pedestrian space of untethered bikes, the companies’ ability to redistribute bikes, and their long-term viability once maintenance costs start to accrue and profitability becomes more of an imperative.

Under the terms of Citi Bike’s contract with the city, which is in effect until 2029, no other company is allowed to operate bike-share within the service area as it exists today: Manhattan up to 130th Street, and an inner ring of neighborhoods in western Queens and northwest Brooklyn.

Council members and advocates have pushed the city to bring bike-share to more neighborhoods, but there is currently no plan to expand Citi Bike further. The appeal of dockless bike-share in New York is that it can provide access to bike-share in areas that Citi Bike might never reach. The risk is that it might cannibalize Citi Bike’s existing service and weaken what is now the most well-used bike-share system in the nation.

Until now, DOT had no official framework to consider how dockless services might fit in NYC. Earlier this year, the agency sent a cease-and-desist letter to the San Francisco-based company Spin after it announced plans to drop 150 bikes in the Rockaways.

Today DOT said it will study “the practicality of ‘free-locking’ bike share in New York City,” including how to keep bikes “within a designated service area” and out of the way on sidewalks.

Once companies respond to the RFEI, DOT said it may do test-runs of various systems around the city, with an eye toward evaluating how the different vendors and their services would interact with one another.