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Vancouver riders stuck with docks for bike-share, as city resists dockless

Bike-sharing riders in Vancouver will be confined to the city’s existing system of docked-only bikes for the foreseeable future.

By Qian Bao and Jinqiao Wu , in City , on December 12, 2018


 Bike-sharing riders in Vancouver will be confined to the city’s existing system of docked-only bikes for the foreseeable future.

City officials say it’s because the lack of regulations on dockless management. Competitors believe it’s because the city doesn’t want any competition to a service it has invested heavily in. 

A Mobi by Shaw Go station at Robson Street in downtown Vancouver

“We at this point have no plans. We have no talks underway to expand [to dockless] that at this point,” said Scott Edwards, manager of public bike-sharing in Vancouver. “There are constraints about how are we managing our public space.”

Docked bike-sharing services took off as a popular city program after Paris introduced Vélib in 2007the first large-scale and successful system built around a network of stations. It allows people to pick up a bike from a designated station and commute to their destinations.

In comparison, dockless bike-sharing service, a newer approach that forgoes stations, has become popular in China in the last few years. One of the advantages for dockless bike-sharing is the flexibility of bike storage. Users can pick up or drop off their bikes wherever they like.

Canadian dockless programs such as Dropbike and U-bicycle have launched similar services across British Columbia. Dropbike reached the outskirts of Vancouver after expanding to UBC’s Point Grey campus in the summer of 2018. U-bicycle moved into Richmond in October 2018. But it’s not coming to Vancouver.

“At this point, Dropbike is not operating in Vancouver, nor are they allowed to operate in Vancouver,” said Edwards.

He added that, though the bylaws may allow dockless solutions to enter, the city’s concerns about the challenges of regulating misplaced bicycles, which could pose safety issues to pedestrians and vehicles, need to be addressed first.

“Vancouver is very happy with the service provided by Mobi by Shaw Go,” said Edwards, who used the full name “Mobi by Shaw Go” each time he mentioned the bikesharing program. Mobi by Shaw Go is Vancouver’s only bike-sharing program. It currently has 200 stations and 2,000 bicycles deployed across downtown Vancouver and nearby areas. 

Bounded contract with Mobi by Shaw Go

Vancouver is financially committed to the Mobi by Shaw Go system. It provided $6 million to cover the capital and startup cost of the Mobi by Shaw Go program, along with $50,000 of annual support until the five-year contract expires in 2021. 

The city provides some financial incentives for that five years of operation to get it launched,” Edward said. However, with the city’s extensive financial ties to its own program, competitors are struggling to enter the market.

“Vancouver doesn’t want other bike-share operators because they already have a dedicated one,” said Angel Fu, CFO of U-bicycle North America. Both Dropbike and U-bicycle have not asked any cities for startup costs.

Edwards, on the other hand, has insisted that the city is open for competition, and the Mobi by Shaw Go isn’t trying to maintain monopoly over Vancouver’s bike-sharing system.

UBC embraces dockless bike-sharing

Dropbike at UBC
Dropbike deployed another 175 dockless bikes near UBC Life Building, expanding its fleet to 325 bikes at the UBC Point Grey campus.

The University of British Columbia partnered with Dropbike, a Torontobased bike-sharing service provider, to operate 325 dockless bikes at UBC’s Point Grey campus in a one-year program. The company is planning to expand its fleet at UBC to 500. It is also planning into other parts of Lower Mainland, but not Vancouver

Instead of using a docking station to store the bikes, Dropbike establishes a virtual boundary around UBC’s Point Grey campus. Users may pick up and drop off their bikes anywhere within the designated area. Each of the bikes are GPS-tracked for location management. Commuters are able to locate and rent nearby bikes through an app. 

“I personally prefer the Dropbike model,” said Ziyang Jin, a fourth-year UBC student in computer science. “Mobi seems like a hassle to me, finding a bike dock is like parking a car. It is very time-consuming. However, I do admit that Mobi  is more organized than Dropbike because I can locate them easily, they are only available at the dock”

Locations of Dropbikes
Locations of Dropbike

But, based on Dropbike’s smartphone app, it looks like the virtual boundary is not strictly enforced, as two of its bicycles were dropped far outside of the company’s virtual boundary. One was somehow parked downtown, while the other one was parked along Broadway.

Vancouver is open to dockless proposals

Nevertheless, Edwards displayed optimism for a dockless future.

“Vancouver is open to this, we want to support sustainable transportation. More than 50 per cent of our trips right now are walk, bike, and transit,” added Edwards. 

Bike sharing startups will need to submit a proposal to the city, including information on environmental concerns and sidewalk management.