Are dockless bicycles the final piece of an urban transportation infrastructure?

Nov 03, 2017

Have you driven in Seattle recently? And then tried to find a place to park? Driving into the city has become a much more challenging undertaking.

Shared, dockless bicycles may be the final piece of the solution for those who want to just park their cars in favor of alternate transportation.

As an avid biker, I was immediately intrigued by the progressive concept to get people out of their cars when I saw my first dockless bicycle technology late this summer while walking in the south Lake Union area as I wandered past randomly parked neon colored bikes; some lime green and others that were either orange or yellow.

Each had a unique rear wheel lock and digital QR code.

Shared bicycles have been around for years, but were inconveniently limited by the need to rent (and return) them at established docking stations which were often blocks away from where you wanted to start or finish your ride.

This was a major factor in the limited use of the Seattle Pronto bike share program, which in turn led to its bankruptcy earlier this year. 

Now GPS and wireless wheel locking technology have changed the game for bike sharing.

In a hurry to get to the bus? Grab a bike. Late for an appointment? Grab a bike. All you need is a smart phone, a dockless bike app and a credit card.

First step is to find a bike. The smart phone app points you to the location of available bikes, usually within a few blocks of your location. 

Next, you’ll probably need to take a short walk to find the readily identified neon colored bike.

Finally, all you need to do is scan the individual QR code on the bike with the smart phone camera--and as you provided a credit card when you activated the app—and it is miraculously unlocked, remotely.

Now you can ride your bike to the destination of your choice. When you arrive, park the bike anywhere and re-engage the lock - and no additional hassle to find a docking station.

You will be (painlessly) charge a dollar per half hour of actual use (at the current pilot pricing level).

Lime Bikes (one of three pilots in Seattle) launched its pilot in July of 2017 with 2,000 bikes. The company intends to expand to 10,000 bikes within a year. The other two pilots (Orange and Yellow bikes) have similar plans.

The exponential rate of growth of dockless biking around the world has revitalized the dying bicycle manufacturing industry in China. Planned production to meet dockless cycling bike demand is estimated as equivalent to 50 percent of the whole industry’s current 2017 capacity.

As with all new technologies, there are always a few challenges to fix before we reach the final product. 

You need to bring your own helmet (it is the law in Seattle, although loosely enforced).

Too many parked bikes on the sidewalk will soon become clutter rather than convenience so the city needs to bring some rationale to where they can be left.

And, of course, there is the issue of breakdowns and theft.


Many people have predicted that dockless bikes will be the "disruptive" technology that is going to change how we get about in our large and congested cities.

These colorful people-powered transportation could be the final piece in the urban transportation puzzle. It is certainly faster than walking and cheaper than Uber.

Assuming that the problems we currently tolerate with car congestion and parking only continue to get worse, we could be witnessing how to implement a bridge that spans the gap between walking and the fixed rail/bus systems for longer distances.

It’s also a great solution for short distance trips to the local grocery store. 

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