Dave Fotsch isn’t convinced dockless bike share companies will be profitable in Boise, despite their growing popularity and budding interest in the City of Trees.
Fotsch has relevant experience. He’s director of Boise GreenBike, a bike share program that, after years of trying, started operating in the spring of 2015. Unlike dockless bike share companies, Boise GreenBike uses stations where customers lock up their bikes when they’re done using them.
It’s the closest thing Boise’s ever seen to the dockless services, and Fotsch knows the cost of running it for Valley Regional Transit, his employer. He said the money customers pay to rent these bikes covers only about one-quarter of Boise GreenBike’s roughly $300,000 yearly operating cost. Sponsors, including Select Health and St. Luke’s Health System, cover the other 75 percent. The bikes and docking stations were purchased with a federal grant.
Then there’s this number: 1.23. That’s how many trips, on average, each of Boise Greenbike’s 127 bicycles have been ridden per day between April 1 and Aug. 21 this year.
Low as that seems, the per-bike, per-day number is higher this year than it’s ever been, Fotsch said. In fact, it has never reached 1 before. In 2015, Boise GreenBike’s inaugural year, it was 0.46 during the same dates.
A new set of regulations in Boise for dockless companies requires each shared bicycle and scooter to average two trips per day — almost twice the best rate Boise GreenBike has notched. And the companies have to keep that rate up year-round, not just during the warm months when bike riding is most popular.
How bike sharing works
Dockless, or stationless, bike-sharing services started popping up about a year-and-a-half ago in cities like San Francisco and San Diego. They were popular in Europe before that. Scooters have gained popularity lately in some cities as alternatives that don’t leave riders sweating as they arrive at work.
Customers download apps for companies like Lime (formerly known as LimeBike), Ofo, Razor and Spin to their smartphones. The app shows the location of available bikes or scooters. A customer scans a QR code on the bike to unlock it. When customers are done using the bikes, they lock them again.
It’s a handy service, especially for people who need to cover “that last little bit of commute that might be needed from a bus station or from a park-and-ride,” said Craig Croner, Boise’s administrative services manager.
Patrick Spoutz, who lives in Boise’s North End neighborhood, said mature dockless systems in other cities attract more rides per day than Boise’s threshold requires.
But customers don’t have to lock their bikes to a rack or any other kind of station, and that has caused some irritation. San Diego learned the hard way not to allow dockless shared bikes in the area around Petco Park, where the Padres play baseball, Croner said.
On game days, people left hundreds of bikes littering the walkways around the stadium, and when the games were over, the exiting crowds tripped over them. San Diego has since banned dockless shared bikes around the stadium, Croner said.
Over the past several months, Croner and other Boise staffers have examined experiences of cities like San Diego. Their proposal for regulating dockless bike sharing services here draws from the lessons learned in those places, Croner said.
“The technology — that’s the wave of the future,” he said. “We want to embrace it. We just want to make sure we do it as tactically as possible.”
Boise would set minimum fleet sizes
The Boise City Council on Tuesday approved rules for dockless sharing that cover ordinary bicycles, electronic bicycles and scooters.
In addition to the rides-per-day average, the rules require any company operating a dockless service to have fleets of at least 50 but no more than 250 bicycles, scooters or e-bikes. No more than 750 total dockless devices will be allowed in the city.
The minimum is meant to make sure operators aren’t using Boise as a testing ground for new technologies, Croner said. The maximum is to keep shared bikes from cluttering city sidewalks and annoying — or endangering — pedestrians.
“We have a lot of people who are sight-impaired walking around town,” Croner said. “We want to make sure that we don’t have any more obstacles out there than we need.”
Boise’s rules authorize the city to establish no-go zones for the dockless bikes or scooters. The city hasn’t established where those zones would be, Croner said, because it wants to see which places are appropriate for the service and which ones aren’t.
Companies that own the bicycles or scooters will be required to retrieve them if customers leave them in the banned areas, Croner said. The city could fine the companies if they don’t respond quickly enough, or it could confiscate the bikes.
The new rules could become law by by the end of August.
Fotsch said he likes them. Boise GreenBike will continue whether dockless bike sharing becomes a fixture in Boise or not, he said. He expects to nearly double the number of bikes in the program by next spring.
He said Boise GreenBike has the technology to go dockless if necessary.
“But we like the model that we have now, because it provides some predictability on when you’re going to find bikes,” Fotsch said.