SDOT’s Regulations Make Bike Share Worse in Exchange for Nothing

SDOT just released an overview of proposed bike share regulations for the city and the results are…underwhelming. The city seems to be setting arbitrary caps and arbitrary fees, driving up prices for Seattlites, reducing usefulness, while delivering nothing of value.

Regulation is a necessary tool to protect us, the voters and citizens, from harm. But for each regulation, we need to ask, does this make our lives better? Does each rule make anyone better off? The answer on the key elements of the proposed rules in this case is, no, they don’t. It’s regulation for reguation’s sake and that’s not good for anyone.

The Program is Too Small

The SDOT proposed rules limit the program to an absurdly small number of bikes, 20,000. The city has about 4,000 lane-miles of roads in the city, which conservatively translates to about 50,000 walkable sidewalk blocks. With 50,000 blocks, why is the city capping the size of the bike share program at 20,000 bikes? That’s less than one bike per city block, guaranteeing most citizens will not be able to find one nearby.

SDOT also proposes the city require operators to equitably distribute bikes throughout the city, particuarly to supply traditionally underserved neighborhoods. But how are companies supposed to do this if they can’t get enough bikes on the road to offer even a single bike per block? There’s a big difference in terms of program value between maybe being able to find a bike near your house if you’re lucky, and relaibly being able to use one when you need it. SDOT’s limits ensure that few people can count on bikes being available when they need them.

By comparison, Seattle residents own about 435,000 cars, so SDOT is proposing the bike share fleet be artificially constrained to just 5% the size of the motor vehicle fleet. This benefits Seattlites…how exactly? Imagine the converse argument: “our streets our full, traffic is terrible, we should limit the number of cars in the city to 20,000.” That would be absolutely nuts!

Cycling is known to have huge health benefits, making bikes accessible makes Seattle healthier. Why does SDOT make rules to limit cycling in this city?

The Program Unnecessarily Stifles Competition

The existing pilot program currently allows three bike sharing systems to operate in Seattle. The proposed new rules would only expand that four, adding Uber-owned Jump to the mix. Limited competition is great for the companies that are providing the service, as they face less pressure to lower prices.

Conversely, limiting competition is typically bad for consumers since they ultimately pay more for the same service. Why is SDOT building protectionism into the regulations? Regulations could be structured to make competition stronger: remove the cap on the number of competing companies, and instead cap the number of bikes per company. That would ensure a competitive landscape for customers, but SDOT’s rules appear to be consumer-hostile instead: limiting the number of players, and then also limiting the program size, all but guaranteeing higher prices for consumers.

The Program Fees are Too High

SDOT is proposing a $250,000 per year licensing fee for each bike-share company, or about $50 per bike if companies max out the number of bikes they deploy at 5,000. Given that bikes are ridden about once per day for $1, licensing fees are tantamount to an extra 15% excise tax on top of the regular 10.1% sales tax, and potentially much more for companies running smaller fleets.

Bike Riders are win-win for everyone: they take cars off the street, lower health care costs for the city’s residents, provides more predictable trip times than driving, and increases mobility of the working poor. A 25+% sales tax would strangle most companies, but doing it to a nascent and pro-social industry is absolutely crazy! The total city budget is about $5.6 BILLION and the city can’t seem to spare 0.017% of that budget avoid a punative tax on a (nearly) pure social good.

SDOT’s Speed Limits Make Bike Less Safe

When WSDOT sets automotive speed limits, they pick a number that minimizes speed differentials between vehicles as a safety-enhancing measure. Safety is even more critical between cars and bikes since the cyclist can be trivially killed by an unsafe driver. SDOT doesn’t apply this same logic, however, when setting speed limits on e-bikes.

The proposed regulations limit e-bikes to 15 miles per hour, despite State laws allowing up to 20 mile per hour bicycles on the roads. Anyone who has tried a Lime e-bike here in Seattle can tell you that the 15mph cutoff is effectively a speed limit on the bike. This might be ok in a city like Amsterdam with a rich network of grade separated bike trails, but in Seattle where almost all destinations require cyclists to ride in the streets with vehicles, this is a recipe for cars to be zooming dangerously fast past bikes stuck going slower, while frustrating cyclists and drivers alike.

An extra 5mph may not sound like much, but it’s 33% faster than 15mph! This small increase in speed has a huge impact on total trip time and therefore viability of an e-bike for any given trip.

These Rules Solve Yesterday’s Problems

While SDOT has spent a year crafting rules for shared bikes, they’ve meanwhile completely banned shared scooters from Seattle’s streets. Yet there’s every indication that scooters are in even higher demand and more useful to Seattleites. While it’s laudable to be deliberate and thoughtful when crafting permanent rules, doing so to the exclusion of new, even more useful technologies is a perfect example of harmful regulation and bureaucracy.

While most news articles on the burgeoning bike and scooter sharing programs are written from the perspective of corporate investors—about how much money these new transportation businesses make—what’s rarely noted is the reason they potentially make money is because they’re enriching the lives of millions of people. No one is forcing Seattleites to use shared bikes or Santa Monicans to ride scooters, people find them very useful! SDOT needs to be embracing the fact that citizens in the city want these services. They need to be doing everything they can to deploy them quickly and apply regulations as-needed, not stall and delay because of hypothetical problems.

Instead, Goran Sparrman told the Seattle Chamber of Commerce today that not only is the city not currently working on a pilot scooter program, but also that the city would not work on one as long as he is director. The city is entering the Period of Maximum Constraint with no plan to materially increase the carrying capacity of our streets and is on track to a priori rule out expanded cycle and scooter programs to solve this crisis. This is bad not only for potential scooter riders, but also for every overcrowded bus rider, and every car driver stuck in traffic: the more folks around you taking up a de minimis amount of street space on a bike or scooter, the more seats you’ll have on the bus or street space for your car.

Fixing Bike Share Regulations

The problems with the proposed rules are obvious, but fortunately the fixes are simple:

  • Remove the permit cap: Limiting competition is good for corporations but bad for citizens. SDOT just shouldn’t limit the number of permits issued so that as many companies as is viable compete to provide service. SDOT is already proposing strict performance rules, bad actors can simply not have their licenses renewed; there’s no reason to stifle competition at the outset.
  • Increase the total bike count: SDOT needs to dramatically increase the bike count if they want a healthy system that can actually serve the entire city. 20,000 bikes doesn’t even pass a sniff test for a reasonable number, the cap should be at least 50,000 and should have a way to be automatically increased if demand warrants it. SDOT should set a per-company cap, to encourage competition, probably in the realm of 10,000–20,000 bikes each.
  • Increase Speed Limits: Bikes need to be able to move as close to traffic speeds as possible. SDOT should raise the assist limit for e-bikes to 20 mph to minimize conflicts between vehicles and bikes that will inevitably share the road.
  • Find an Alternative Funding Source: The licensing fees are onerous relative to the current bike share fleet size, potentially strangling the program when it should be encouraged. Stealth-taxing cycling is lose-lose for the health of the city.
  • Launch a Scooter Pilot: Scooters are even more popular the bicycles in other American cities and the need for a pilot program is apparent now than ever. Having just launched a bike pilot, all the infrastructure is already in place and Seattle could launch a scooter program with only a small amount of marginal work.