Introduction of dockless bikes has campus, competition curious

Introduction of dockless bikes has campus, competition curious

CHAMPAIGN — Beginning this fall, some 500 turquoise bikes are expected to show up in Champaign-Urbana, the community's first attempt to bring dockless bike sharing here.

Indiana-based VeoRide is the first company to apply for a license, and if approved, students arriving in August could be using them to get to class.

"I think we'll see at least the first company launch by the beginning of the school year," said Ben LeRoy, associate planner for the city of Champaign.

VeoRide's bikes, which are locked when not in use, are rented with a smartphone app for 50 cents for 15 minutes of riding.

With a one-year pilot program and a variety of parking requirements, Champaign, Urbana and the University of Illinois hope to avoid some of the pitfalls other communities have run into, with dockless bikes being discarded haphazardly or blocking sidewalks.

"It's still a very new technology," LeRoy said.

"We're definitely going into this with eyes wide open. We're going to learn things, and we're going to continue to look at and learn from other cities. Our regulations for this first year represent our best effort to balance interest and avoid pitfalls we've seen."

With a dockless bike system, customers don't have to return the bikes to specific docks around the city. Instead, they can be parked on any public street or sidewalk, though they're not supposed to block sidewalks or streets.

The regulations require the bike sharing companies to remove improperly parked bikes within three hours during peak riding times and must allow both customers and non-customers to report the bikes.

The companies will also have to provide data on how the bikes are being used.

Jeff Yockey, the executive director for Champaign County Bikes, is looking forward to the dockless bike sharing.

"There's so many students, grad students and young professionals in our community, who come from DC, Boston, San Francisco. They've seen the bigger systems, like Divvy (in Chicago)," he said. "I think it will increase the share of people riding bikes."

At Neutral Cycle, a bike shop in Campustown, store manager Mike Nauheimer said the dockless bikes could help the business, which sells nicer bikes that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

"It will probably impact the low end of the market the most, which is like the people who would get Roadmaster and Walmart bikes, which they're not really our customers anyway," he said. "I've heard from other people who worked at bike shops in Chicago, who saw Divvy come into town, that said it actually just got more people riding in the long term and then actually helped their sales because people use the bike-share bikes for awhile and then realize biking is practical and they'd rather just have one of their own."

Neutral also sells semester-long bike rentals, which Nauheimer said could be affected by the dockless bikes.

"We'll see about that, but they are different," he said. "With our rentals, it's a nicer bike, and it's your bike, so you don't have to worry about trying to find a bikeshare bike."

Bikesharing grew in the U.S. last year by 25 percent, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, with the introduction of dockless bike sharing to about 25 cities.

Before last year, cities typically used docked systems, where bikes had to be returned to various docks around the city.

With the dockless systems, each bike is monitored by GPS and can be unlocked with a smartphone app.

Thirty-five million bikeshare trips were taken last year, and the number of shared bikes increased from 42,500 to 100,000 in a year, mostly from the introduction of dockless systems.

The dockless systems haven't been without their flaws.

The dockless bikes average fewer rides per day than the more-established docked systems, according to NATCO, and some dockless bike sharing companies launched in cities without permission.

Other companies have already gone out of business.

That has Peter Davis, the owner of Champaign Cycle, skeptical of the dockless bikes.

"I don't understand how they make money," he said. "And I know someone in St. Louis who said the bikes are everywhere, and he saw a guy riding down the street and he dumped the bike in the middle of the street. What you don't own, you don't necessarily feel very responsible for."

That being said, like Nauheimer, he doesn't think the dockless bikes will hurt business.

"We don't expect bike sharing to have much, if any effect, on our business," he said. "It's different customer bases."

VeoRide spokeswoman Linda Jackson said that, if approved, this will be the company's largest deployment.

Started in March 2017 by Purdue University graduates, it now has bikes in about 15 communities around the country, according to its website.

Besides the 15-minute rides for 50 cents, Jackson said they typically also offer monthly packages and daily passes, as well as discounts for students.

She said they also like to partner with local bike shops and want to expand the number of bicyclists.

"I think it gets people excited about biking," Jackson said. "We're trying to help the ecosystem and get people excited to be back on bikes and sustainable transportation."

Even as dockless bikes are just taking off, in the past few months, companies renting dockless scooters have launched in a few cities as well, prompting similar concerns and more pilot programs.

When the C-U pilot program wraps up next June, LeRoy said the cities will likely consider scooters and other changes.

"As we review the program, we'll take a look at scooters and get input on that and see whether that makes sense or not," he said. "We're all working to figure out how to make it the best it can be."

Just in time for bike-theft season ...

URBANA — Last week, the University of Illinois police was able to locate and arrest multiple people within minutes of allegedly stealing bikes from racks on campus.

These arrestees weren't just caught by officers who happened to be in the right place at the right time, but instead were caught moving a handful of GPS-tracked bikes police plant in UI bike racks.

"As soon as it moves, it pings our front desk and our officers are alerted," said Pat Wade, the department's spokesman. "There is a handheld device the officers use to pinpoint the location of the bike to within 5 feet."

The bike-theft busy season is about to begin as students return to campus later this month. Wade expects the GPS-tracked bikes will help lead to a number of arrests.

Through June this year, 35 bikes have been reported stolen to UI police.

UI bike-theft reports

Year Thefts
2013 107
2014 61
2015 92
2016 54
2017 96
2018 (through June) 35