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.

43664340400 52dc766331 K

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

32 thoughts on “How Do We Price Dockless Bikes?

  1. Matt SteeleMatt

    The closest NiceRide dock/hub is 3/4 mi away from my house. If I’m leaving a destination, such as Downtown or a transit station, and there’s a scooter sitting next to a NiceRide bike… I’m taking the scooter, solely for this reason. I am sick of walking blocks back from a hub/dock to my destination. And it’s not just home where I’ve experienced this – it’s the place where my son goes to PT, and the place where I travel for the occasional work meeting, and on and on.

    I’ve already written the mayor and my CM to simply let Lime bikes in the city, thereby also giving us the advantage of being able to end trips in Edina or St. Paul too.

  2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    They should get rid of the hubs altogether. They added a bunch of new bikes that are close to useless because there are fewer hubs than there are stations, but they’re also harder to find!

    Try it without the hubs. See if there’s a problem. Add the humbs back if you find there is (there won’t be).

    Or at least do it downtown. Seriously, you can’t actually use a dockless bike for downtown transportation, because there are almost no hubs. There should be dockless bikes on every downtown block!

    1. Brian

      So, now we’ll have not only scooters littered all over downtown, but bikes too. Sidewalks can already be crowded enough when everybody in downtown is going to/from

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Scooters don’t seem to me to have been a problem. Occasionally I see one that could be parked less conspicuously and I move it, but for the most parts, people seem to leave them out of the way next to a bike rack, up against a wall or next to a pole or other obstruction.

        No reason why bikes can’t be the same.

        Also, as someone who used to commute on foot downtown, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a meaningfully crowded Minneapolis side like.

  3. John Maddening

    Living in Saint Paul, I have used the Lime Bikes more often since they were introduced this year than I have used Nice Rides in the entirety of their existence. I love being able to find one within a few blocks of my house and riding it down to the light rail to continue my trip, then doing the opposite to come home, parking the bike on the corner. The nearest Nice Ride dock is a mile walk in the opposite direction.

  4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I think the suggestion in the article would be an improvement over the existing setup, but I would rather see them go full-dockless.

    If Edina manages to make it work with lower density and vanishingly narrow sidewalks, I think it would work great in Minneapolis where sidewalks are near-universal, and most of wide boulevards or a wide paved area in commercial districts. Lots of easy places to temporarily store bikes to be ridden.

    And although I don’t love the idea of one national company dominating the entire region’s bikeshare, I agree with Matt Steele that it would be handy to come and go from Edna or St Paul on the same system.

    One other note about private property — the Lime Bikes seem to end up there a lot in Edina, and it generally seems OK if it’s a “quasi-public” area — like a paved plaza at a shopping center, or a bike rack outside a mixed-use building. I’m unsure if property managers feel the same way!

  5. Anon

    Boo to hubs. People want to door-to-door transportation which requires vehicles to be dockless and in surplus so that that availability is assumed. Designing for less than what the customer wants will have predictable results. Many people also want some power assistance and the extra thrill that a powered ride brings to an otherwise dull day at the office.

    It is hard to predict the evolutionary direction of last-mile -transport, but it is unlikely to go away or stand still. Nice Ride’s commitment to partnership and process is an obstacle to their success. If Bird and Lime had waited for permission and consensus then they would not exist. ‘Dockless hubs’ is the first new idea I’ve heard from Nice Ride since they launched 8 years ago, and it is no coincidence that innovation followed competition. I hope Nice Ride brings something bold and new to the market; there are many mind-blowing revolutionary last-mile-powered technologies to choose from. Get off the blockbuster-video track and show us something awesome.

  6. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    The hubs are a problem IMO, but the other pricing issue is the subscription vs. fee-for-service model. Lime bikes do not have an annual membership option, which makes them much less affordable in the long-term for people.

    1. Nick M

      I second the fee structure issue. I also don’t like the hidden tax of requiring users to have an active mobile phone. If we want to give access to people who are not white and wealthy we can’t expect that they have phone with an unlimited data plan. Even if it is pretty likely that they do have a phone, building the infrastructure that allows continuation of the key system (or something similar) now would be much lower cost than if the system is at scale and we then realize that people are excluded by the technology interface.

      (This might be my conspiracy theory, but I suspect that Motivate/Lyft is more interested in knowing where I am and that data they collect from running an app on a phone is pretty tasty. That’s not what I’m paying to use the service for–and why I was really disappointed when a for-profit org took over the service.)

      Finally, I think that a dockless system that does not flood the city with bikes will be less convenient than hubs. Sure, it’s really easy to end a trip but starting has the potential of lots of frustration if bikes are moving too fast due to low supply. And I would be concerned that it could increase costs if unused bikes in inconvenient places sit for days. I agree with the author that changing the out of hub fee structure could be a great way to transition by sending the price signal that putting the bikes in a predictable place has some value to the system while still increasing flexibility.

  7. Brian

    I suspect NiceRide is doing the hub thing because of all the complaints in other cities about dockless bikes left all over the place including blocking sidewalks in some cases.

  8. GlowBoy

    I tried out one of NR’s new dockless bikes, but it’s a far cry from the dockless systems I’ve tried in Seattle. I wasn’t able to figure out how the “hubs” where I had to return the bike were any different than the docks they already had, and it didn’t look like the system expanded to new parts of town (one of the advantages of true dockless, and a serious flaw in the “Sharebike 1.0” model).

    Seemed to me the only difference was that the bikes themselves were a bit different physically (blue paint, NuVinci drivetrains) and the checkout/payment model was like dockless systems.

    But I couldn’t see that the service area expanded with the blue bikes, so I still can only use the bikes if I first leave home by bus. I live in Diamond Lake, leaving me 2+ miles from the nearest “hub”. The argument could be made that I’m in a low-density area that doesn’t support much non-car transport, but in cities with dockless there are plenty of bikes available in neighborhoods like (or even less dense/further-flung) than mine.

    I’d just as soon see LimeBike in Minneapolis, for this reason and the fact that I could then ride between Minneapolis and either St.Paul or Edina — both of which are destinations I ride to regularly — without having to switch bikes (and having to walk across a river to switch bikes, in the case of St. Paul).

  9. Greg

    Also make every NiceRide dock also a hub. No tape on the ground necessary. An easy no-brainer improvement.

  10. Evan RobertsEvan Roberts Post author

    Thanks for all the comments everyone. I don’t love the current dockless implementation, and totally agree that every existing dock should be a hub for the dockless bikes if not already.

    The UMN partnership also seems to work well, because you can just about expect to find one at any campus bike rack nowadays.

    I hope they can work out similar deals to make very light rail stop a dockless hub, and other obvious focal points.

    The virtual hub that you can expect to find a bike at makes it easier to envisage a system that isn’t smartphone dependent, perhaps activated by a smart card.

    I’m not at all worried by the “clutter” issue, FWIW.

    1. Brian

      Why are you okay with bikes scattered all over the city? Downtown sidewalks can be crowded enough without scooters and bikes in random places all over.

      1. John Maddening

        They CAN be, but with education and people pitching in (move a bike two feet to the left it you come across them blocking the way, that’s what I do), it’s not going to be a problem.

        It’s like Disney World. Yes, they have janitors, but it is every employee’s job to pick up a piece of trash if they come across it. I think that if you can take five seconds to stop and make your city a tiny bit better, why wouldn’t you?

        1. Brian

          Why can’t we design a system that doesn’t encourage leaving bicycles all over instead of expecting the public to move bicycles out of the way?

          If people can park bikes blocking sidewalks why can’t I park in the middle of the road then? Nobody does it because they would be ticketed, towed, and possibly taken to court all at THEIR expense!

          1. John Maddening

            It doesn’t. The app specifically tells you not to park scooters or bikes places where they would be in the way of people, but some people don’t follow directions because they’re rude jerks. When I use them, I don’t leave them blocking sidewalks. I’d be fine with fining the users who do.

            As to your second question, you absolutely can park your car in the middle of the road. You’d just be one of those aforementioned rude jerks then.

            1. Brian

              If I parked in the middle of a traffic lane in downtown Minneapolis I could be expected to be towed rather quickly.

              This is the car equivalent of leaving a bike or scooter in the middle of a downtown sidewalk,

        2. Monte Castleman

          If they city wants to put everyone on the payroll to shove bikes out of the sidewalk rather than expecting them to have to deal with it for nothing I’m sure they’d be happy to do so, just like the employees that are on the payroll of Disney pick up litter but as a guest there I do not.

          1. John Maddening

            Do you also not pick up trash on the ground if you see it when you’re walking around your neighborhood?

            I just don’t get the mentality of people who see something on the ground that is not supposed to be there and they don’t pick it up if they’re physically able.

            1. Monte Castleman

              No I don’t, when I go to Disney I’ve paid a horrible amount of money for an admission ticket, when I go to the park I’ve paid a horrible amount of money in local property taxes. Considering that there’s other ways I’d rather spend my time than to be constantly picking up other people’s trash.

              1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                I get that at Disney, where I also would expect an employee will be along soon enough (although I’d likely still pick up that which is in my way and takes little effort).

                But the park is a place we share. My taxes and my effort are pretty much the same thing. My effort,at least ever so slightly, might even reduce my taxes, in theory.

                Some people are carelesss. One thing the rest of us can do is try to offset that where it’s no skin off our nose.

  11. Tom L

    The problem I see with that approach is that it allows a dockless NiceRide bike to become somebody’s private bike, at no cost whatsoever. If at night I ride a NiceRide dockless bike to my garage and pull it inside, then check it out for a ride the next morning, under the current rules that costs me $5 each day. If they were to do as you describe, that would be zero dollars to essentially own that bike. And trying to make it contingent on *somebody else* using it would be problematic because legitimate cases where it makes sense could still result in me being the next user.

    1. Evan RobertsEvan

      Tom, thanks for engaging with the ideas in the post. I don’t claim to have the perfect replacement system in mind, but I think their current model is problematic because it rigidly defines where is an OK place to leave a bike.

      Your example is a good one of the challenges in the current system. It would cost you $5/day, and then it would get you banned. And that’s probably an appropriate response to putting the bike in the garage.

      But at the moment we have a situation where someone can’t ride the bike to a location where the bike is still accessible to others, but outside the designated spots.

      Given that the bikes are tracked by GPS, it wouldn’t be too hard to see if someone is persistently leaving the bike on private property and being the next person to take it.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        One check on taking the bike home for yourself every day is that for planned trips to and from home, you can use our own, customized and easier to ride bike.

Comments are closed.