The City of Bellevue in Washington, a U.S. pioneer of hub-based e-bike sharing, is using a savvy strategy to solve the micro-mobility problem. Here’s what Canadian municipalities can learn from its experience
Although an international border divides them, British Columbia and the state of Washington have much in common: mountains, west coast climate, modern cities tight to the ocean and active, outdoors-oriented populations.
All of which means planners north of the border can learn a lot by watching their neighbours to the south. A case in point: the city of Bellevue, Wash., and lessons learned from an 18-month dockless bike share pilot that the city is now rolling over into a permanent program.
Why Bellevue? As a satellite suburb connected to the larger city of Seattle by a couple of bridges crossing Lake Washington, it came to the issue after seeing more and more shared-use bikes arriving on its streets from its larger neighbour. So, it set about piloting a different approach to managing dockless bike share with a goal of creating a more orderly, functional service. One that would work for it — and that other cities and operators could learn from.
The key differences for Bellevue? To start, the city would only allow e-bike sharing (no non-electric bikes or e-scooters) and the system would also use designated bike parking hubs to keep streets clear of poorly parked bikes.
A year and a bit later, the city is asking residents to map out where they want new hubs to extend the service, soliciting new fleet providers and proposing changes to its program and local bylaws that would preempt the arrival of e-scooters while also lowering the minimum and maximum fleet sizes to encourage smaller pilot fleets to enter their hybrid system. It also wants to introduce stronger incentives to encourage service providers, and ultimately their riders, to leave the bikes at their designated hubs.
Electric Autonomy Canada spoke to Andreas Piller, associate transportation planner at the City of Bellevue to find out more about its pioneering pilot.
Electric Autonomy Canada: Could you start by outlining the pilot?
Andreas Piller: Our pilot’s framework was really informed by what we were seeing going on in other communities and what our stakeholders were concerned about. Foremost among those were what impact they had on the public realm and what would we do to make sure bikes were not just left everywhere.
At the time, the reality was of dockless bikes already being left around the city. People were riding them over the bridges from Seattle more and more often.
So, our big focus on day one was looking at examples elsewhere. Portland, Ore., had an early version, the Bike Town system, whose bikes could be left anywhere, but the structure of the system meant people typically brought them back to the hubs. We also saw lower-cost versions in Singapore where they just marked an area on the ground to return bikes to. We were figuring out how to apply that to a dockless model: the convenience of the free-form system but in a way that is not going to clutter our sidewalks. That’s one key area where we distinguished ourselves at the time.
The other was a focus on e-bikes. We focused on e-bikes only, recognizing the hills and terrain was a barrier. With e-bikes the hills are virtually flattened. We did this in the interest of making it accessible to a wider range of the population.
Electric Autonomy: The pilot operates with a hub model, with designated zones to leave and collect the bikes. How did you set it up?
Andreas Piller: We had 25 on-street bike hubs on day one. It was literally the intern and I who went out and spray-painted them downtown to set that as an expectation of how it was going to be. We have 50 in the city now and would love to at least double that.
We located them initially in business districts and activity centres. This is where the sidewalks are crowded, but they are wider than in residential areas, so we could identify ourselves the spaces where we would put bike racks.
In our residential neighbourhoods, the sidewalks are narrow, so we were considering, “Where do we put them that doesn’t end up their front lawn? Where could we put it that would be useful to people?”
Electric Autonomy: How will the hub model develop?
Andreas Piller: We have a community engagement effort that we launched recently. It is an interactive online map where people can hop online, look at the map, and turn on layers for the bike network, for transit stops and routes, find their neighbourhood or local park and place points on the map where they would like to see these bike hubs.
We do also have a questionnaire online that is broader based, gauging the community’s take on bike share: what they like and dislike, whether and how often they’ve used it. That will be our first touchpoint with the community asking how this has been going for them.
Electric Autonomy: Lime was your only provider for the pilot. What has your experience been like with them?
Andreas Piller: It’s been generally positive. They launched with 50 bikes July 31 last year, [then added up to as many as 300. Since March, the fleet has averaged approximately 150 bikes.] We’ve gotten about 40,000 trips taken by 9,000 users. For those who wondered whether anybody would be interested at all, it demonstrates pretty clearly that, yes, there would be a market for it. However, Lime, for its part, just announced it will not renew its permit next year.
Electric Autonomy: You have a specific mention of equity programs on your website. Why was that important to your city?
Andreas Piller: We required a system to provide access for people who may not have a credit card or smart phone and can’t interface with the service in the same way as perhaps the primary audience can. Lime was able to determine how to provide this access program. It was not new for our community, but something we wanted to see to make it as accessible as possible. For us, it’s not just about more operators, but more people being able to use the system.
Electric Autonomy: How do you deal with the winter?
Andreas Piller: We have pretty mild winters. It’s a similar climate to Vancouver, B.C. — cool but not cold or freezing. The benefit of the shared system is that it may rain in the morning and if you’re a commuter you can get the bus in the morning and bike back in the evening.[In the new framework] there’s going to be incentives that encourage a minimum level of service commitment year-round. Operators that meet that can increase the fleet size or decrease the fee. That’s a distinction between the pilot and what we will make permanent. Operators may want to reduce their fleet [in winter] to reduce costs, but from our perspective we would want to see the number of bikes remain reasonably constant year around. We are less concerned of the business metric and more concerned about “How many people are we moving?”
Electric Autonomy: What would you tell a municipality that asks how to set up for dockless bike share?
Andreas Piller: One of the lessons for us was to maybe be a little bit more flexible. In response to the concerns [raised elsewhere], we came up with very robust strategies. But the Transport Commission said, “Let’s learn from our own experience and be flexible.” We have had to be flexible as the industry is changing rapidly.
For example, when we were creating our framework, one of our key concerns was that we were going to have to manage far too many bikes left in all kinds of places. The question for us was, “How were we going to manage this?” But it’s certainly not what it looks like today.[This whole process] started with us asking “How do we manage this in a way that is beneficial for the city?” Now, a year on, it is about “How do we get enough operators to make it work for the city?” We’re trying to find out how we lower the barrier for entry for additional operators to come to town and how we can make it an appealing place for them to do business.