Regulating the Ride: Lessons on the Evolution of Dock-less Bikeshare Policy in American Cities

American cities are in the midst of a personal mobility revolution, particularly centered on the growing phenomenon of dock-less bikeshare programs that have launched in many cities in the past few years. As city officials and community activists seek to diversify the modes of transportation available to residents and visitors, flexible new options such as dock-less bikeshare are emerging as low-cost alternatives to the more traditional public investments in mass transit and improved roadways. At the same time, a rash of private investment from high-tech firms and international consortiums has further reduced the startup and operating costs of dock-less bikeshare programs, which operate without costly docking stations or local administrative staff. Still, despite the early promise of dock-less bikeshare as a solution to America’s personal mobility crisis, recent controversies over the management of these vehicles – including extensive media coverage of dock-less bikes being abandoned on sidewalks, in auto parking spaces, and even thrown into waterways and onto rail tracks – have swayed policymakers and elected officials in several American cities to revisit the issue of regulating these dock-less bicycles. This study investigates the evolution of the relationship between public officials and bikeshare service providers in several American cities. By exploring the ways in which these parties have interacted over time, and the results of these interactions – for better or worse – this project aims to document how a rushed process to enable dock-less bikeshare on the streets of cities in need of new options can ultimately lead to unintended and expensive policy outcomes that eventually force officials to impose new regulations after the fact. The project proposes to organize cities with dock-less bikeshare programs along a spectrum of regulation, ranging from “not regulated” to “very tightly regulated” environments, with the aim of investigating how cities come to regulate (or not regulate) these programs. This study relies on interviews with stakeholders, content analysis of city ordinances and media coverage, and an exploration of the programs in each of the cities to build a narrative for how this process began and how it evolved with time and political/social pressure. By depicting the full saga of dock-less bikeshare in American cities, the research team aims to inform the bikeshare literature with regard to the externalities and after-effects of legalizing a novel mode of transportation without first ascertaining the likely risks and added expenses of doing so. This project will be useful to city officials and cycling advocates pushing to expand the menu of mobility options for city-dwellers, and will provide a framework for cities hoping to promote dock-less bikeshare for residents and visitors in a manner that meets people’s needs while also holding true to local wishes and fair financial agreements.