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How Do We Price Dockless Bikes?

Nice Ride’s recent move into the dockless bike sharing world has been interesting for its distinctive approach with virtual, or at least painted hubs, a modest $5 fine for parking outside a hub, and people who repeatedly leave bikes outside hubs banned from the system. If they’re being nice I’m going to guess you’ll probably get a warning that the next offence is the final one.

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NiceRide docked and dockless bikes

I’m sympathetic to this experiment. NiceRide has an interesting discussion document which lays out the tradeoffs between the two poles of “leave your bike anywhere” and leave it in official hubs only models.

Even in the world of smartphones and GPS that dockless systems rely on, there is real public value in dockless bikes being left in somewhat predictable places. The virtual hub system increases the chance that another bike will be in the location you’re wandering towards if somebody else comes from the other direction and gets the bike you were hoping for.

In the spirit of responding with the constructive critique NiceRide is seeking about their dockless model I have a modest suggestion for how to improve the pricing of bikes left out of the hub.

Bikes left out of a hub make it harder for the next rider to access them, but how much harder is a variable quantity. Leave the bike on private property, and it’s physically possible for someone else to access it, but leaves the next rider in a moral and legal quandary about trespass in the service of the public bike fleet. At the other extreme NiceRide has clearly not identified all the places that people might like to start leaving the dockless bikes on a regular basis.

One way to find out the answer to the important question “where should we put the virtual hubs” is to put up a document and request people email you. But another way is to let people leave the bikes in the wild where they like, and collect real data on where they’re being dropped, and where they’re being picked up.

The nub of the issue is this: If a person leaves a bike out of a dock, and then it’s picked up by someone reasonably soon, what’s the problem? The bikes are circulating and being used. The problem comes when people take the bikes to locations where they’re not useful to many other people.

Instead of the fixed $5 charge for leaving a bike out of the hub, what NiceRide should do is allow a grace period, perhaps 24 hours, where a bike out of the hub is not penalized. If the bike sits for longer the penalties increase, perhaps $2 for the next 24 hours, and then a slightly steeper penalty for the 24 hours after that.

At some point it will be necessary to cap the total tariff and re-balance the system by returning the bike to a hub. Perhaps that comes after 2 or 3 days, but NiceRide will have a better sense of what the optimal level of fleet utilization is. Out of hub locations that are the site of repeated drop-offs and pick-ups can then become candidates for future virtual hubs.

The grace period also solves another problem with the new system, that you can’t pause a ride to run an errand. It seems impractical to put a NiceRide hub outside every potential destination in the city. Allowing people to lock the bikes out of the hub lets you take one right to your destination, do your thing, and take the risk the bike will be there.

NiceRide has been an important transformation in urban mobility in the Twin Cities. Dockless promises another transformation, and we should try to get the most benefits from it.

Evan Roberts

About Evan Roberts

Evan Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Population Studies and the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches and researches demography, labor and urban issues. He counts it as a successful week if he has run more miles than he has driven. Connect on twitter @evanrobertsnz or now Mastodon @evanrobertsnz@econtwitter.net