The reality of cities wrangling dockless bikes and scooters
Talk to city staffers managing new dockless bike and scooter programs across the U.S. and here’s what you’ll find: Heat maps with no legends. “Real-time” data reports that arrive late. Online data portals missing raw data. Phone calls and emails to vendors every time a citizen complaint is received. Logging into several dashboards to try to piece together the total data picture. This is not the seamless, smart tech that was promised to cities. Yet this is the reality for the people we spoke to in 10 U.S. cities — from traffic engineers to chief bicycle officers — charged with wrangling new dockless bike and scooter vendors.
We at Stae think there needs to be much more attention to the people working on the ground — precisely, where the product hits the pavement. There’s been a lot of excitement from new mobility startups distributing their products, mayors announcing pilot programs, associations drafting regulation guidelines, and riders enjoying new ways to traverse the city — but what about the people whose job it is to ensure everyday accessibility, safety, and equity?
That’s why we’re elevating the voices and perspectives of the people inside city hall charged with running new shared vehicle mobility programs to better understand the issues they need help addressing. Here, we share a few learnings and propose ways that technology vendors can become better city partners. (Here’s our full set of insights.)
We started with a landscape analysis, identifying the 23 dockless bike and scooter operators active in U.S. cities, the availability and characteristics of their data feeds, and the regulatory policies that cities put in place to manage them. We made this part open, creating a public, editable compendium of what we found and invited anyone to access and add information. Next, we reached out to cities with active dockless programs and selected 10 that represented a mix of population sizes, densities, geographies, and experience with micro mobility operators.
We then led in-depth interviews with 1–2 people from each city who have a direct role in overseeing and evaluating a program, e.g. transit and urban planners, public works managers, policymakers, research analysts, bicycle strategists, and traffic engineers. We shared our learnings back with the cities we spoke with, and now we’re sharing highlights and big-picture insights that can help cities on the ground floor of this new mobility space have a stronger voice in shaping its future.
Unlike cars used by Uber and Lyft drivers, shared micro mobility vehicles are the sole property of the vehicle operators and are manufactured to be monitored. Solar-powered GPS trackers with 3G wireless connections embedded in dockless bikes and scooters send information every few seconds to a central database. This allows vendors to know where people start and end trips, the paths and durations of travel, and which bikes are active or parked. Without docking bays that centralize and standardize trips, vendors depend on this data to find and maintain their floating fleets and rebalance them where people need them most.
While this data is abundant, vendors often take the position that it is proprietary. The data is at their discretion to share — a city privilege, not a right. They are sensitive to the value of the data that if made public, could be used by their competitors to gain an advantage. With nascent or no city regulations in place, this contributes to how infrequently vendors share data back with cities. One urban planner managing two dockless vendors for his city shared his uncertainties:
We know some basic things about what we want from the data, but don’t know exactly how it works. A lot of companies want to host a dashboard, but keep all of the raw data firmly in their hands. They don’t want anything open if it doesn’t have to be.
If cities had better access to this data, it would improve both their everyday operations and long-term planning needs. One transportation planner and policy analyst noted his basic need to have a current snapshot of dockless vehicles:
We’re looking at getting more information in real-time. We’d like to know the size of the fleet at any point in time and get alerted if bikes are tipped over or have low battery levels.
We also heard stories of staff being stretched beyond their primary roles to route citizen queries and chase down vendors for access to data. A chief bicycle officer for a major city had expected a real-time feed, but instead found herself wrangling multiple static files:
We get monthly reports, both in Excel spreadsheets and PDFs, and a more summary PDF with trip data. We get what we get.
One traffic engineer explained how with the introduction of dockless permits to her small city came a new job; she has quickly become a one-person monitoring, complaint-routing, and compliance-ensuring operation. While she currently oversees one vendor with 100 bikes, she also interacts with several other vendors operating in adjacent cities whose bikes find their way within her city lines. She’s also dealing with another company that halted operations in her state and abandoned their fleet. On average, she manually processes 15–20 complaints a month, ranging from bikes being discarded in the river to blocking sidewalks. This is time-consuming work that could be streamlined with the help of real-time data.
The irony is that while new mobility technology adds greater flexibility and freedom for people to move across the city, it’s also adding unfair, manual tasks to the people whose job it is to make sure that these programs run smoothly.
Overall, this gap between what the city needs and what vendors deliver is not working. Good data sharing practices not only make it easier for city staffers to do their jobs, but they can help ensure that our cities are integrated, equitable places to live. One transportation manager identified this core tension, questioning the true intentions of dockless vendors operating in his city:
They’re a private operator doing all they can to make money and they will continue to say the things they’ve been saying, but will they only operate in neighborhoods that are more affluent and are already served by transit modes?
We built Stae for exactly these kinds of frictions between the public and private sectors. We’ve seen how new shared mobility services are happening to cities, rather than with them. And we are countering this dynamic by partnering with cities to reclaim city data from private vendors, facilitate data-sharing compliance, and monitor accessibility and equity standards.
We believe that innovation should be integrated collaboratively into the urban fabric — not forced upon cities. That’s why we’re stepping in to help cities rebalance both their bikes and their power.
Interested in partnering with us to co-create solutions for managing dockless data? Reach out here: firstname.lastname@example.org