Dockless Bikes (And More Electric Bikes) Are Coming to Philly

The city is moving forward with a one-neighborhood pilot plan for dockless bikes — and expanding its existing e-bike fleet.

dockless bikes

A dockless bike by Ofo, which ended a scheduled six-month bike-share pilot program in Camden after just two months. | Photo courtesy of Ofo

Dockless bikes are coming to Philly — temporarily, at least.

Philly is moving forward with plans for a dockless bike share pilot program later this year. The pilot would be separate from the city’s existing Indego bike share fleet, and it would consist entirely of electric pedal-assist bikes.

We’ll have more info below, but first: You may recall that the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability (which oversees bike shares and bike lanes) introduced the city to 10 electric pedal-assist bikes through Indego this past fall. The bikes were rolled out as part of a pilot program which ran from November to mid-March.

We took the bikes for a spin, and they were pretty sweet. As mentioned, they’re electric pedal-assist bikes (not regular e-bikes), meaning they give you a motorized boost only when you’re already pedaling. That little push can help you travel up to 17 mph (which is about as fast as a speedy cyclist can go when they’re really pedaling away).

The Indego electric-assist bikes were popular (and safe) enough that more of them will return soon, and this time for good. Aaron Ritz, transportation program manager for OTIS, said the organization is expected to announce more details on that front next week.

As mentioned, the forthcoming dockless program won’t be connected to Indego, Ritz said. The city is looking for a different company to partner with — potentially dockless bike share providers like Lime, Jump (which is owned by Uber), Lyft, Gotcha, or Zagstar. And the program would only roll out in one neighborhood not currently connected to the city’s existing Indego bike share. Potential locations include Mt. Airy, elsewhere in Northwest Philadelphia, or somewhere in Northeast Philly, Ritz said.

Here’s what else we know so far about the dockless bike pilot.

Some background

What makes a dockless bike share different from a regular bike share? Most importantly, you don’t have to return them to designated stations (like you do with Indego). Instead, you can find them and leave them pretty much anywhere. Plus, bikes are reserved only — or primarily — with a smartphone app.

The fact that the bikes are untethered has been a cause for concern in other cities, of course. That’s because you get a few questionable folks who dump their bikes in seriously bizarre locations, creating a situation which is, in this day and age, ripe for meme creation and sharing.

This is Philadelphia, though. Our people are civilized. We would never do anything like that.

Regardless, to prevent anything like it from happening, Ritz said OTIS will likely search for a dockless bike share program that requires bicyclists to lock the vehicle to something that will keep it upright and stationary“We want to make sure sidewalks are still passable by pedestrians, especially for the vision or mobility impaired,” Ritz said.

What’s with the delay?

You might be wondering why Philly is just getting around to dockless bikes, considering many other cities have already introduced and given up on them. Across the river in Camden, dockless bikes provided by the Chinese company Ofo endured just two months of what was supposed to be a six-month pilot program last year. (The company abruptly pulled its bikes from the city in July 2018, claiming at the time that it was pivoting to a new international strategy.)

Camden isn’t alone: dockless bike share companies have backed out of cities across the country since debuting in the last few years, many choosing to instead focus on the dockless scooter fad. (Let’s not even get started on the likeliness of those things coming to Philly. Electric scoots are still illegal at the state level, and Ritz said that even if they were permitted, OTIS would want to “take a measured approach” to them.)

But regardless, in this case, the city’s wait-and-see tactics seem to have protected officials from adopting a dockless bike program when the companies were experiencing somewhat of an experimental flux, Ritz said.

“There were some notable business failures, including Camden,” Ritz said. “That is the sort of thing we are glad to have avoided in the last year.”

Safety Concerns

One other major consideration regarding the electric-assist bike share? Safety. Earlier this month, Lyft announced that it was removing 3,000 electric pedal-assist bikes from bike-share programs in New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco because of safety concerns. The company said it had received reports from riders who had experienced “stronger than expected braking force on the front wheel.”

Julie Wood, a spokesperson for Citi Bike (which is owned by Lyft), said in a statement at the time that the company was pausing electric bike service “after a small number of reports and out of an abundance of caution.”

Ritz said Philly’s own electric pedal-assist bike pilot went smoothly this winter. The bikes were “road-worthy and safe,” he noted.

Plus, they were popular. While Indego users tend to rent regular Indego bikes roughly once per day during that time of year, Ritz said bicyclists rented the electric assist bikes about 10 times per day. The bikes were also taken on longer trips, including for both commuting and recreational purposes. Plus, he noted, the e-bikes were preferred by members of the Indego Access Pass program, which offers a discounted $4 to $5 monthly membership to low-income riders.

Of course, Indeogo won’t run whatever dockless e-bike program the city chooses this year, as mentioned. Ritz said OTIS will look for proposals from firms “that show they can do a good job and provide maintenance plans.”

“We want to test the products in a safe way,” Ritz said. “That’s why we’ve taken a diligent approach rather than a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach.”