Overland Park to explore ‘dockless’ bike-sharing program — but other cities’ experiences provide cautionary tales

In Washington D.C., some residents have complained that the “dockless” bike sharing program clutters the sidewalks. Photo credit Daniel Lobo.

A bike-rental system similar to Zipcar is on its way to Johnson County next year. But will the three cities pursuing it be able to avoid the nightmare of stolen, abandoned and vandalized bicycles that have plagued other cities where the rental programs have been used?

With a nod toward the upcoming Bike to Work Week, Overland Park on Monday became the latest city to express interest in “dockless” bike sharing. The city council approved $24,980 to hire a consultant to look into what has become a popular transportation option in other cities.

The system used in Kansas City, Mo., operated by BCycle has docks for the ride-sharing bikes.

Meanwhile Lenexa, Olathe and Johnson County Park and Recreation District will begin dockless sharing next year in under a grant from Mid America Regional Council. That system, which will also include Kansas City, Kansas, is being run by BikeWalkKC.

Dockless bike sharing is different from the BCycle rental offered now in downtown Kansas City. With that system, bicycles can only be checked out from and returned to bike stations at set locations.

The newer dockless systems break the bikes free from the stations. They allow riders to find the nearest bike with a phone app, for example, pay with a credit card on file and receive a code to unlock the bike’s wheel. The bike can then be left at locations other than the place where they were picked up.

Dockless bike systems are big in China and have been implemented in some U.S. cities. But the internet is full of stories of dockless bike sharing gone wrong. Because they are not locked into immovable stations, the bicycles in those systems are vulnerable to vandalism and theft.

A bike sharing system in France had to be shut down, for example, after youths took to vandalizing the bikes as a form of amusement. Abandoned bikes have been found in rivers and in trees or have simply gone missing. Residents have complained of unused bikes littering sidewalks and lawns.

In China, the problem has been oversupply of bicycles. The result has been mountainous piles of discarded bicycles.

A lot of the problems are due to the business model of bike sharing companies, said Eric Vaughan of BikeWalkKC. For-profit companies, often from China, offer cities a cheap price and bring in a lot of low-quality bikes, he said.

“They’re not sustainable,” he said. “They’re backed by venture capitalists trying to grab market share and drive out the competition.” Later, they’ll increase the price, he added.

Vaughan believes the safeguards in BikeWalkKC’s system will work for Johnson County entities that are participating in the grant.

The non-profit’s dockless system will have a lot of built-in security to avoid the kinds of problems seen in other cities, Vaughan said. Riders will be required to lock bikes to something stationary and bike racks around the city will be located and geo-fenced as return areas. Returning a bike outside of the return area will cost a little extra, and the trip won’t be considered closed for payment purposes unless the bike is locked up.

In addition, the bikes will have locators and accelerometers that will let BCycle know if a locked-up bike is being carted away.

The non-profit system also will also have the advantage of being more regional, he said, because riders will be able to return bikes at the BCycle stations as well.

“Those problems are what we’re trying to prevent, so it’s done in a responsible way,” he said. “The cities told us they want responsible dockless bikeshare.”

The drawback of the non-profit system is that it runs on grant money. Once grants run out, cities will have to decide whether to continue the programs and how to fund them.

For that reason, Overland Park decided to study the idea a little longer before making a commitment, said Brian Shields, city traffic engineer.

The city was approached by three vendors offering dockless bike sharing, he said. Toole Design Group was hired to look into best practices and come up with recommendations for the city before any decision is made.