Johnson City leaders contemplating ban on 'dockless' bike sharing

Zach Vance • Mar 5, 2019 at 6:57 PM

The bike-sharing business model has yet to be introduced in Johnson City, but if or when it does, city leaders want to be prepared.

At Monday’s City Commission agenda review meeting, Development Services Director Preston Mitchell proposed an ordinance that would ban “dockless” bike-sharing programs in the city, while “docked” sharing programs would be permissible under certain criteria. The proposal would also apply to motorized scooters. 

With docked sharing, bicycles or motorized scooters are corralled or stored on a rack. Customers go to those racks, typically pay using their phones or by other means, take the bicycle and bring it back to the rack when finished.

Dockless sharing, as the name suggests, means the bicycles and scooters are free-standing and require no docking station. Once a rider is finished renting a bicycle or scooter, they can just leave it wherever they end up, which can lead to cluttered sidewalks and public spaces.

“Dockless systems, the bikes do not live in a corral, so to speak. The bikes are self-contained units. The ability to pay using your credit card or PayPal or some other type of web-based service, all of that’s all built on the bike, and the bike is loose,” Mitchell told commissioners.

“The problem for many communities around the nation and around the world is those dockless bikes are creating major ADA issues with blocking up our sidewalks. They’re also dealing with serious nuisance issues.”  

Dockless bike sharing was first introduced in China, but has since spread around the globe with the help of companies like California-based Limebike, Beijing-based Ofo and San Francisco-based Spin.

Most docked bike-sharing programs involve some type of public-private partnership, Dana Yanocha, senior research associate at the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, told the Associated Press. 

Therefore, dockless bike-sharing programs have been embraced by cities that lacked necessary funds to jumpstart their own docked-program, like Dallas. Since this past summer, more than 18,000 dockless bikes have made their way to Dallas. 

When Mitchell still worked for Salisbury, North Carolina, he said a company expressed interest in bringing 300 bikes to the city with a population of roughly 35,000. 

“Usually, they’ll start with a pretty conservative number and if it’s popular, they will ramp it up from there,” Mitchell said. 

The ordinance proposed at Monday’s meeting would permit docked bicycle-sharing on private property, but not on public right-of-ways. 

“It would have to be on some private property that would have to receive pre-approval from the property owner. The property owner could be a public entity like ourselves, or a private entity, but it would have to be pre-approved (and) routed through the permitting process out of Development Services,” Mitchell said. 

The teeth of the proposed ordinance would allow the city to confiscate a bicycle or motorized scooter if it is abandoned for more than 24 hours. 

The initial plan was for commissioners to vote Thursday on the first reading of this ordinance, but City Manager Pete Peterson posed questions about the possible impact on local brick-and-mortar bike rental shops, like Trek and Local Motion. Peterson also asked how the ordinance would affect East Tennessee State University’s ability to adopt their own docked or dockless sharing program. 

In regard to those questions, Mitchell said he would rather postpone the ordinance’s first reading for two weeks, while he contacts ETSU and local stakeholders to gather input. 

“There could be some pretty significant changes to (the ordinance). I’d rather you not adopt it on first reading,” Mitchell said. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Bryan Winston, owner of bike rental shop Local Motion, said he had not yet heard from the city about the ordinance, but he did express concern about how a general bike-sharing program, whether docked or dockless, might impact his business model. 

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