Lime bikes are blowing up. Literally.
This post is not about the couple of battery explosions reported in Seattle recently, but it’s hard to ignore that very visible (and rare) problem. This post is about recent pricing and service area changes by bike (Lime and Jump) and car (Car2Go and the now-defunct ReachNow) share services in Seattle, signs of trouble for the app taxi services (Lyft and Uber), and what Seattle and other cities need to start thinking about for the next phase.
I don’t have any answers. Instead, I want this post the be a place to collect your thoughts as users and to get folks thinking about the role of local governments in the future of shared mobility. Primarily, this site is focused on what comes next for bike share, though it seems worthwhile to consider the bikes within the context of the car-based services. I also want to restart conversations about public funding for bike share, which has proven to be incredibly valuable and effective at increasing the number of trips around town by bike.
But first, lets talk briefly about how we got where we are, what’s working and what isn’t.
- 2014: Non-profit launches first 50 stations of Pronto Cycle Share downtown and in the U District just in time for dark and rainy fall and winter months.
- 2015: Pilot Pronto system shows low ridership, and the planned station expansion schedule is delayed. A fumbled city buy-out puts the system into crisis.
- 2016: The year starts with basically a bike share emergency. The City Council approves purchase of the system, but it quickly becomes clear that its problems are worse than previously known. SDOT then puts together an expansion plan that would replace the existing hardware with new electric bikes, but the whole concept is marred by an ethics finding against then-SDOT Director Scott Kubly. By the end of the year, the existing system is set to close, and the expansion plans are very shaky.
- 2017: Then-Mayor Ed Murray kills bike share expansion plans, diverts money to downtown bike projects like 4th Ave bike lanes (hmmm). But before the bikes are even pulled from the streets, word reaches the U.S. about a free-floating bike share concept in China that appears ready to cross the Pacific. By summer, Spin, Lime and (later) ofo launch in Seattle. Bikes cost only $1 to ride, and ridership immediately eclipses Pronto.
- 2018: Lime introduces 15¢ per minute e-bikes, Spin leaves town as it transitions to scooters and ofo leaves town as their China-based business begins imploding. Bike ridership in Seattle increases significantly, smashing bike counter records all over town. Uber-owned Jump joins Lime at the end of the year as the $1 pedal bikes disappear.
- 2019: Lime and Jump increase prices to 25¢ per minute for their e-bikes, putting costs for many trips on par with app taxi car rides. Lyft is supposed to launch electric bikes in Seattle, but keeps delaying the rollout.
Meanwhile, Car2Go’s initial run of small and efficient Smart Cars has long been replaced by full-size Mercedes vehicles in part to compete with BMW’s ReachNow service. But now ReachNow has shut down, and Car2Go has started charging people near the edges of the city (including Much of West Seattle and Rainier Beach) more money. This wildly tone-deaf change screams inequity.
But it’s important to talk about the important differences between car sharing, like Car2Go and ZipCar, and app taxi services like Lyft and Uber. Car sharing is held back largely by the popularity of app taxis. But this competition is not fair or sustainable because the cost of app taxi rides are heavily subsidized by enormous amounts of misguided venture and investor capital and by the exploitation of the workers who own and drive the cars. But if Uber’s terrible IPO is a sign of things to come, it’s not hard to imagine these companies going under. Uber, for example, just lost $5.2 billion in one quarter, bringing its total losses to nearly $17 billion. And they are losing all this money while also cheating their drivers. It’s almost as though their business model is inherently bad. For some reason, people keep giving them money, but surely that can’t last forever … right?
Of course, it’s not like bike share has a great business model, either. If Uber and Lyft go under, they could take a lot of bike share services with them since they now own some of the largest bike share companies in the nation. Rising bike share prices in Seattle could be due to these companies’ efforts to recoup more of the costs to operate, though it’s still not clear how revenue lines up with costs. It’s extremely unlikely we will ever see $1 bikes again, since that price was obviously too low to make money. But how much does a ride need to cost to actually make a profit? And what happens to equitable access and ridership numbers if prices reach that point? If bike share becomes yet another service for the wealthy, then is it still a good thing? When the cost of riding a bike is the same as having a worker drive you there in a car, something is seriously wrong.
Here’s where we need to talk about benefits to society. Uber and Lyft are bad for cities. They increase traffic, which increases greenhouse gas emissions along with all the other negatives associated with increased car driving. Bike sharing is inherently good for cities. More people biking means less traffic, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and improved public health. Car sharing is somewhere in the middle, though I would argue it is good for cities because it makes it easier for people to avoid car ownership but remains parked when not in use. But car share also has a questionable business model, and charging more to park in Rainier Beach is a terrible way to try to address it.
Perhaps getting around town simply costs more than people want to pay. And that’s where public subsidies come in. Public transit would be unaffordable if fares and advertising had to cover the entire cost to operate. Car infrastructure is heavily subsidized through non-user taxes like property taxes. So as private companies innovate ideas but struggle to make them pencil out, local governments should be looking at the positive and negative outcomes of each idea and start considering whether and how public subsidies might make sense to support services that are good for the city. I do not know what these subsidies should look like (Public ownership of a new bike share system? Subsidies to private bike share companies? Some other option?), but I would love to hear your thoughts.
The other benefit of public funding is that local governments can have more say over how a bike share system operates. It should also be more accountable to the public. But as we saw with Pronto, the slower pace of government can also cause serious problems compared to fast-moving private companies.
I don’t think this is something that needs to happen immediately. These bike and scooter services are still evolving constantly, and being a host to their experiments has been working well for Seattle. But as very affordable bikes fade into the past, I am left feeling like the city lost something important when the $1 bikes went away.