An increasingly popular trend in the “sharing economy” appears to be barreling toward Waco on two wheels.
Three firms have approached city officials about setting up bike-sharing systems that would distribute bicycles around town and allow anyone to unlock them with a smartphone app and go for a ride at moment’s notice.
City and downtown officials have talked with Zagster, LimeBike and Ofo about their systems and have created a working group to consider how to help them succeed without becoming a sidewalk-clogging nuisance. The Waco City Council discussed the opportunity at a retreat Wednesday.
Assistant City Manager Bradley Ford said bike share technology has great promise in promoting downtown tourism and recreation and “last-mile” transportation for students, workers and visitors. But he said the city needs to consider ordinances and ground rules requiring companies to manage their bike fleets properly.
Council members said they want to help the services succeed.
“I think we should encourage these systems,” Councilman John Kinnaird said. “They have the potential to alleviate other problems we’ve had. I don’t want to put so many regulations on it that it kills the incentive to do it. I want to encourage this. I think it’s a great idea.”
The working group has met twice this fall with the goal of defining the kind of bike share system Waco needs and plans to make a recommendation in the spring.
“It’s been good to see the level of public interest in bike-sharing in terms of the working group and from the city council in getting a system working here,” said Jeffrey Vitarius, financial and administration coordinator at City Center Waco, who is involved with the working group. “It could be a very good addition to our transportation system.”
But bike-sharing technology seems to be moving faster than the group can talk about it.
The group was focused on a system with four or five docking stations where riders can park and rent bikes. One of the three firms, Zagster, uses docking stations in cities nationwide and typically partners with local entities for the cost of the docking stations. For example, Texas A&M University partners with Zagster in Bryan-College Station.
But on Thursday, the day after the council discussion, the company announced that in its future locations it is moving to a “dockless” model called Pace.
The firm would still have dedicated stations for customer convenience, but Pace bikes could also be parked or picked up just about anywhere. The bikes have built-in ring locks that can attach to conventional bike racks as well as the company’s proprietary rack. With Pace bikes, customers can use the app to find the closest bike using GPS or head to the nearest station.
“What’s unique about Pace is that it’s all the benefits of dockless without the drawbacks,” said Jon Terbush, spokesman for the company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Ford, the assistant city manager, said that hybrid model is “encouraging,” given the potential problems other dockless bike services have encountered. Other dockless systems, including LimeBike and Ofo, have self-locking wheels but aren’t designed to be attached to bike racks or other fixed objects.
At the council retreat, he showed photos collected from Twitter of dockless bikes cluttering city sidewalks, stuffed in a park tree, left in a pond or even parked atop the awning of a convention center.
“When something is provided without restrictions, people often make poor choices,” Ford said.
“Most operators have retrieval teams, but the devil’s in the details of how long they take to respond.”
Kinnaird said the bike companies have a financial incentive to manage their bike fleet.
“If it ends up in a lake or tree, that’s their problem,” he said.
Mayor Kyle Deaver agreed that the bike companies have an incentive to self-police. He suggested starting a bike share system on a trial basis and expanding it.
Zagster officials said they would hire local bike shops and mechanics to manage and maintain the bike fleet. That work would include “rebalancing” the number of bikes left at different points around town.
And while some “sharing platforms” such as Uber have attempted to do end-runs around local regulations, Terbush said Zagster is willing to work with the city.
“We would work in tandem with local governments,” he said. “We always have believed in working together with localities. We understand we need to make bike share sustainable.”
He said pricing hasn’t yet been decided for Waco. In Carrollton, the price for a 7-speed bike is $3 per hour, with trips under one hour free for customers who buy a monthly or annual membership.
Jeremiah Newton, bike shop mechanic at The Bear Mountain, said his shop would be interested in maintaining and managing bikes in a bike share system.
He said he believes there is plenty of demand for rental bikes, especially in the downtown and riverfront area.
“I think there is, especially around the park and the new riverwalk area they’ve added on,” Newton said. “It’s always nice on days like this when the weather’s perfect to get outside. The more people on the bikes, the better.”
He said he hopes the addition of bike share services would encourage the development of more bike lanes around downtown.
Waco Bicycle Club President Trent Dougherty also serves on the working group. He said the bike share system may compete with existing bike rental services in the short term, but it could also attract new users.
“I think the hope is that in the end it contributes to the city’s investment in cycling infrastructure enough that the community of cyclists grows, and that will in turn support local businesses,” Dougherty said.
He said he hopes the addition of more cyclists on the street will hasten the development of bike routes and possibly more bike racks.
“The more motorists see people on bikes, the more they expect them, and the safer the road will be for bikes, and the more they’ll say, ‘That looks like fun.’ ”