At least two private bikeshare companies have approached the City of San Antonio for permission to release their free-range, dockless bikes-for-rent in San Antonio, according to City officials. But before it follows in the footsteps – or perhaps missteps – of dozens of cities worldwide, City staff will investigate best practices and latest technologies to develop a pilot program that could mitigate several drawbacks of dockless systems.

Dockless rental bikes don’t need to be picked up or placed at specific stations – unlike the 525 San Antonio BCycle bikes on 62 stations, locally operated by the nonprofit San Antonio Bike Share. Dockless bikes can be picked up or dropped off anywhere. Typically they operate with a mobile application that requires users to login, enter their credit card information, and scan a QR code that unlocks the bike.

Therein lies the convenience and problem, said Veronica Garcia, interim assistant director of the City’s Center City Development and Operations department. On Tuesday she showed City Council’s Transportation Committee photos of dockless bicycles that have been thrown into lakes, piled haphazardly on sidewalks, and vandalized.

Dockless bikes require less infrastructure investment and space, so operators can pass on those savings to users who can ride for as long as they want (or are willing to pay) without checking into a station, Garcia said. But that means they could be placed in public right-of-ways – disrupting pedestrian or vehicle traffic – or misused in other ways.

City staff will work with San Antonio Bike Share and other potential operators to craft a proposed pilot program over the next two to three months, said Lori Houston, assistant city manager. “[San Antonio needs] a policy for how to regulate this dockless system to get ahead of it.”

The City will look at the many ways to regulate dockless bikes and go about implementation, City staff clarified Wednesday, and they are just beginning to study them.

One possible option could be to craft unique operation agreements like the City did with rideshare companies.

The five-member committee, chaired by Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), was largely hesitant to go full-steam ahead on the dockless system, given the troubles other cities such as Dallas and Seattle have experienced.

A wise person learns from his mistakes, Saldaña said, “but an even wiser person learns from other people’s mistakes.”

One part of the solution may be a “station-less” system, said JD Simpson, executive director of San Antonio Bike Share, where bikes can only be left in certain areas within a geofence, a virtual boundary defined by GPS technology. “Smart bikes” that can adhere to geofencing have already been developed by bikeshare manufacturers such as BCycle, Simpson said.

“We don’t want bikeshare to get a bad name,” Simpson said.

Responding to reports of bikes littering sidewalks, streams, and other public right-of-ways, Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax sent a letter last week to dockless bikeshare companies that have released thousands of bikes onto the city’s streets. Broadnax wrote that they have until Feb. 9 to clean up the bikes or the City will. LimeBike, Ofo, Mobike, VBikes, and Spin currently operate in Dallas.

Requiring users to lock the bikes to a stationary object could be another way to prevent abuse of the system, Simpson said. According to Dallas News, that concept may soon be in place in Dallas if the new company Pace, which uses such locks, begins to operate there.

Austin’s City Council will consider regulation of dockless bikes in early February, Garcia said.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said he was annoyed by the dockless bikes he saw in Darmstadt, Germany, and other cities.

“It looked really messy,” Pelaez said. “There wasn’t a rhyme or reason” for where the bikes wound up. “There’s a long way to go before I’m comfortable with dockless.”

However, he added, “I’m okay with pilot programs.”

If the pilot focuses on “disincentivizing bad behavior,” it could help the program thrive, Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), an avid cyclist, said she’d like to see a greater  emphasis on bikeshare as a solution to the “last mile” challenge public transit commuters face, as opposed to it being an amenity for tourists. Buses can get you close, but not always close enough to walk, she said. That “last mile” could be filled with cycling options.

The existing system with docking stations seems to be thriving, said Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who said the pilot program, if approved, shouldn’t be limited to the usual urban core locations.

Since it first launched in 2011 as the first rideshare program in Texas, San Antonio Bike Share’s docking stations have been placed throughout the center city as far north as the Witte Museum and as far south as Mission Espada. They are mainly available inside of Interstate 10 on the west and Interstate 37 to the east.

More than 525,000 BCycle trips have been taken in San Antonio, according to the City.

After some financial difficulties in 2015, which led to the the City providing $180,000 to finance a new executive director and other costs, the nonprofit is now “100 percent self-sufficient,” Simpson said, adding that negotiations are nearing completion with a major title sponsor that has a local presence.

That title sponsor, according to Garcia, is a “national brand with a local presence in the healthcare industry” that will provide stability for the next three years.

City Council will vote on a proposed amendment to extend the City’s contract with San Antonio Bike Share through 2018 with automatic annual renewals on Feb. 8.

The City’s contract with San Antonio Bike Share is to “give them authority to continue to manage the bikes and system which are in our public right-of-way,” Garcia said.

The dockless bikeshare pilot proposal will first be heard again by the Transportation Committee, which will decide if it should go to a full Council vote.

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com

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