The radical history and dockless future of bikeshares

At first, there was nothing. And then… there were bikes! Everywhere. “I leave town for two weeks last summer,
and I come back and the whole city is flooded with this rainbow of bicycles.” Last summer, thousands of bikes showed up
on Seattle sidewalks. No racks, no stations. Just unlock it with an app, and leave it anywhere. Now free-floating bike startups are flooding
the sidewalks in cities all around the country. Bikeshares have a checkered history. But… could they work this time? The concept of the bikeshare started in Amsterdam
in the 1960s with a group of anarchists called Provo. Provo scattered a bunch of free white bikes
around the city. Here’s a couple that got married with a Provo bike! Look at this long haired chap with a Provo! The white bikes didn’t catch on. But the principle behind it lingered: If people had a bike in front of them, they might ride it! And maybe this could be key to fighting traffic
and air pollution! The next iteration was the docked bikeshare
system. Swipe a card. Take a bike from the rack. Ride it to one of the other docks in the city
and lock it back up. But these systems are expensive, and cities
often foot a lot of that bill. Plus, people can only ride to and from specific
spots. Docked bikeshare systems work in some cities,
such as New York or DC. But in others, like Seattle, those bikes are just collecting dust in a warehouse. Which brings us to now — the dockless
bikeshare. Look at these bikes: sleek, colorful. Docks? Please. This one even has a battery! They’re typically found where people want
to go. If they’re not, companies can move them
around town strategically. These bikes are funded by venture capitalists
or larger companies, like the Chinese conglomerate Alibaba, fighting for the market with dirt-cheap prices and an abundance of bikes. “It’s bringing people onto bicycles who
might not have ridden bikes before. They’re not going after the MAMLs — the
middle aged men in Lycra.” “We’re not excluding the MAMLs! But we think this has potential for a lot
of other communities.” 6:48
So… are we beginning to see the bike-sharing utopia Provo dreamed of? Probably not because they hated capitalism. But are these bikes the key to solving traffic, pollution — and even climate change? Well, it all depends on what someone’s giving up. Let’s take my coworker Eve, for example. Eve usually takes public transportation to
work. So replacing that transit with a bike ride
has less of a benefit than if she were replacing a car commute. Hua Cai, a scientist at Purdue University
in Indiana, uses trip length to estimate how much carbon these bike shares are actually
saving us. For short commutes under half a mile, lots
of people walk. When a commute stretches beyond 3 miles, people
are way more likely to drive. Because longer bikeshare trips often replacing
cars, they’re more likely to be better for the environment. Bikeshares in Shanghai likely saved the city
as much as 25,000 metric tons of CO2 in 2016, according to one study. That’s like saving almost 3 million gallons
of gas. But it’s not just about having bikes: Infrastructure,
people, regulations, and economics are also critical in making a bikeshare system work. Some companies are clashing with cities over
their bikes cluttering public sidewalks. Others are finding it hard to get a foothold
amid the fierce competition. Ofo, a major bikeshare company, just announced
they’ll be pulling out of some of their less-profitable U.S. markets, like Chicago
and Atlanta. Meanwhile, a few companies are moving beyond
bikes… to scooters. Lime and Uber are rolling out new scooter
programs, and Spin is so into scooters they didn’t even want to talk to Grist about their bikes. “Let us know if you’d be interested in covering
a story on scooters, and I can try to set something up.” Electric scooters could be the future. They’re lighter and smaller, and they can
go farther on a charge! “Literally a year ago these bikes came in
to our city, and now they’re being disrupted already.” If dockless bikeshares can stay afloat, maybe they’ll change how people move around the city. Or, maybe they are just another stepping stone in the evolution of urban mobility.

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