Dockless Bike-Share Start-Up Spin Scuttles Rogue Launch Plan After DOT Sends Cease-and-Desist Letter

DOT has been talking to bike-share start-ups and Citi Bike operator Motivate about how to structure the next phase of bike-share expansion. Spin, which had planned to drop 300 bikes on Monday, has not been involved in discussions yet.

Shared bikes in Shanghai. Photo: Mark Gorton
Shared bikes in Shanghai. Photo: Mark Gorton

City Hall warned bike-share start-up Spin not to move forward with plans for an unauthorized launch in NYC next week, and the company backed down this afternoon.

So-called “dockless” bike-share companies could expand access to bike-share beyond the current Citi Bike service area, but DOT wants the arrangements to be on its terms. The agency is in the midst of discussions with Citi Bike operator Motivate and multiple dockless bike-share companies about expanding the bike-share on offer in the city.

“We want to experiment, we want to see new technologies,” said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. “But we do have a message, you have to work with us. You can’t just go out there on your own. We have an obligation to protect public safety.”

The San Francisco-based Spin had planned to drop 150 bikes in Manhattan and Brooklyn and another 150 in the Rockaways on Monday, Council Member Eric Ulrich told the New York Post. But in a letter today to CEO Derrick Ko, DOT attorney Michelle Craven threatened the company with police action if it goes ahead with the effort [PDF].

“Please be advised that you do not have the authorization or permission, pursuant to a concession, franchise, permit, contract or otherwise, required for such operations,” the letter says.

The agency also sent a less threatening letter with the same message to Citi Bike General Manager Jules Flynn, warning that the bike-share demonstration “pop-ups” it’s been planning outside the Citi Bike service area are in violation of the agreement Motivate signed with the city in 2014 [PDF].

DOT has been negotiating with Motivate for the last 18 months to determine the next phase of bike-share expansion in NYC. For the last six months, DOT has also been talking to a handful of bike-share start-ups, but not Spin, according to a City Hall source familiar with the process. Negotiations should wrap up in the coming months, the source said.

One concern regarding the new bike-share services is the quality of their bicycles, which appear less durable than Motivate’s, and the resources they are willing to spend on maintenance and distribution of the bikes. There’s also a risk that their services will cannibalize Citi Bike, which could leave the city with worse bike-share options if the new companies flame out in a few years.

DOT officials believe dockless bike-share technology offers an opportunity to improve and expand the current bike-share service on offer in the city, but are asking companies to hold off launching until the best course of action has been determined.

“We’re interested in what the newest generation of bike sharing technology can do to help us expand access to more neighborhoods and more boroughs,” said agency spokesperson Scott Gastel. “But this can’t be the Wild West, with ad hoc installations that haven’t received City approval and that don’t fully consider the future of bike sharing in New York. The public has an interest in a fully-integrated and expanding public bike sharing program that embraces the latest technology.”

In May, Politico’s Dana Rubinstein reported that a draft proposal for Citi Bike’s next round of expansion would give Motivate “some measure of exclusivity on city streets.” If Citi Bike is granted exclusivity within its service area, start-ups could still be licensed to operate elsewhere in the city.

  • William Lawson

    Citibike is obviously not performing anywhere near as well as it should be, that’s for sure. They have made no progress whatsoever in solving the bike balancing problem, and I sincerely believe they’ve given up. If you look at a Citibike station map on a daily basis, you will see that the neighborhoods which need bikes most of all – those which are not served well by the subway – have stations which are almost completely empty from about 8:30am onwards. They start filling back up around 5-6pm, and by 7-8pm you cannot find a place to dock.

    I use the bikes to get around Manhattan for my job. In theory, it’s a much better solution than taking the subway or shuffling around at 5mph on a bus. In practice, my attempts to use the bikes follow the same pattern every day. I look at the map, see every station is empty, spot one with a single bike 7 or 8 blocks away, and no matter how fast I proceed to the scene, I arrive to find someone pedaling away on it. Oftentimes I will find that I’ve walked almost the whole way to my destination before a bike becomes available. It’s total crap, and not what I pay my annual subscription for. I don’t think I’ve found a bike at the dock on my block in the morning, not once.

    A year ago, I wrote them an email complaining about the lack of bikes in the East Village and sent them a screenshot of my map showing the entire neighborhood with big zeros all over it. They responded by saying that they were aware of the problem and that they expected to fix it within a couple of months. Shortly after this, I started seeing the Citibike guys pulling the big trailers full of bikes, and I thought wow, this could be it. A year later, it’s become clear that these guys are not rebalancing the stations at all, or if they are, they are doing a woefully inadequate job. I haven’t seen one for weeks now.

    If you look into the problem of rebalancing you’ll find all kinds of academic talk about it online. Studies have been done. Solutions proposed. They talk as if it’s this really difficult problem in logistics and math which will take a stroke of genius to solve. Well, here it is: YOU NEED MORE FRIGGING BIKES, AND EITHER MORE STATIONS OR BIGGER STATIONS. And then you need a few trucks that are constantly rebalancing stations which still end up empty. That’s it. There aren’t enough bikes, and the stations aren’t big enough to handle the popular destinations. And they’re not making anywhere near the effort they need to rebalance.

    This is why Citibike needs competition. It cannot fulfill the needs of bike share users, unless it’s prepared to put a shitload more bikes on the street. Which is clearly not going to happen. So the city needs to be doing everything it can to court willing participants in the industry. Instead of doing everything it can to discourage them.

  • Vooch

    DOT is being a typical kafkaesque bureaucracy stilfing innovation because well just because

  • redbike

    This is a cogent comment, well-expressed.

    How would a rogue operater, providing dockless bikes that will perforce end up in random locations, address the problems you describe?

    I’m a Citibike charter member, with (I just checked the website) 2,038 trips. I suppose that makes me a frequent flyer, though I don’t think I’m anywhere near breaking any records. It means my Citibike experience, while entirely anecdotal, covers enough ground to try to tease out some trends.

    For the first two years of operation, Citibike was plagued by repeated self-inflicted wounds; also, an overarching lack of transparency or credibility. That’s changed somewhat, generally for the better.

    Specific to rebalancing, I do see an increasing number of Citibike stations that offer “valet” service, attempting to address surges in demand for either bikes or docks that passive reliance on customer use can’t cope with. My own repeated experiences both in mid-town and lower Manhattan: other than during morning / evening peak demand, if I want a dock or a bike and none is available, I simply wait at a station for a few minutes, and customer flow provides a bike or a dock. That said, I’m well-aware this won’t work on the system’s periphery.

    While Citibike’s service has gotten better since its start, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. That said, I don’t see how a rogue operator with a “move fast and break stuff” business model will help bikeshare customers. Tax dollars aren’t behind Motivate and they’re not behind random rogue operators, but I’m glad there’s municipal oversight. There’s room to improve both Motivate’s operation and the municipal oversight, but I don’t see how introducing chaos into the system will help.

  • rao

    I think a reasonable tradeoff to allowing them in would be that dockless system entrants have to pay for the installation of bike-locking posts or racks that are open to everyone. It’s a disgrace that there is still no decent place to lock a bike up in many commercial areas, and too often the existing racks and posts are either junked up with abandoned bikes or completely commandeered by restaurants. The city needs a lot more racks, pronto.

  • William Lawson

    I’m not saying that Motivate are a total solution to the problem – just that the more bikes there are, the easier it’s going to be to get one. CitiBike is never going to address the problem of rebalancing – their main priority will be expanding into new neighborhoods and signing up more members, and those new areas will experience the same problem as current CitiBike locations, i.e. unbalanced stations. It’s a similar to the MTA’s obsession with spending money on expensive “flagship” additions like the 2nd Ave line (which is kinda lame let’s face it) and the Fulton hub, while the rest of the system is severely neglected.

    Citibike’s valet stations don’t even begin to address the problem for the majority of people who experience empty docks. The nearest to me is on Avenue A and by the time I’ve walked there, I might as well have walked to the subway. It’s the docks on places like Avenue C and D that are always empty. I really don’t see why they aren’t identifying these problem spots and prioritizing them for rebalancing.

    I spoke to a guy at a dock recently who said his adult son worked for Citibike for 6 months, in bike maintenance, before quitting because the whole operation was a frustrating shambles. He said they’re just not on top of things, and that there is this feeling at the company the whole thing is headed for the drain. I know from my interactions with them there does seem to be a certain degree of delusion about how they’re performing. Recently I was accused of not docking a bike 3 hours after I am absolutely 100% certain I docked it (I had had trouble getting the green light to come on and remember saying “finally!” when it did). I went back and the bike was there in the dock – I had to wrench it out and re-dock it again for it to “take.” Customer service was going to charge me late fees, and the lady swore blind that there was no way on earth any of their docks were faulty. She basically called me a liar when I said I’d seen that green light. A quick search online revealed other people who have experienced the same thing. Then she told me that it was my responsibility to check my email every time I docked to make sure that I got the confirmation message. I told her that I often don’t get those emails for 20-30 minutes after docking, and that on a number of occasions I have received no email. Again, she basically accused me of lying by claiming that their email system was watertight and that it wasn’t possible for me not to get one. It happened just today, as it happens. Docked at 2pm, have yet to receive a confirmation. CitiBike is a mess.

  • Rex Rocket

    Since you use a bike for your job, you might be better off using your own bike. Using your own bike has its own inconveniences I’m sure, but nothing like chasing a single docked Citibike for 7 blocks.

  • William Lawson

    No, I wouldn’t be better off using my own bike unfortunately. First of all, I don’t have room for a bike. Secondly, I don’t have the time or space to maintain a bike. Thirdly, my job often takes me to a location whereupon I end up some distance from my initial destination on foot, and I would have to backtrack all that way to reach my own bicycle. And lastly, a mechanical problem or flat tire during my working day would cause me big problems.

  • Elizabeth F

    I agree… bike parking is in short supply almost everywhere. Dockless bikeshare would immediately make it impossible for anyone with their own bike to park just about anywhere in NYC. They would need to make a REAL commitment to building bike lock-ups on every block in the city.

  • Elizabeth F

    I have serious doubts about bike rebalancing.

    When you have people living at point A and working at point B, you will have high inbound flows in the morning and outbound flows in the evening. There are two ways to deal with this issue: (a) Run vehicles full of people one way and dead-head them the other way, or (b) Make a lot of space to store vehicles at point A overnight, and point B during the day. Transit usually works like (a), and private automobiles like (b). The advantage of transit is it requires less space. The advantage of automobiles is they don’t require empty dead-head trips.

    Private bicycles also work like automobiles: they must be stored all day at their destination. If they are ever to carry a sizeable fraction of NYC commuters, MASSIVE amounts of bike parking will have to be built. That’s not an unsolvable problem: it will be 10x easier than building the same amount of automobile parking. But it’s still a LOT more than we have today, and cannot be provided with just a few racks on the sidewalk.

    Bike share works more like transit; and therefore REQUIRES rebalancing. The key question is, what are the relative costs and benefits of doing this with bicycles, rather than just running dollar vans from the East Village to the nearest subway stop. Citibike (in theory) offers better schedule flexibility and convenience; but dead-heading the bikes back is probably more expensive than running an empty van with the same number of seats. That is really the fundamental problem.

    > No, I wouldn’t be better off using my own bike unfortunately…

    I know of know magic bullet solution to these needs. A folding bike such as a Brompton can help some of them. I LOVE my Brompton.

  • William Lawson

    I don’t have doubts about rebalancing. I believe it could be done. They need to look into a more efficient system of getting the bikes on and off the trucks. Perhaps some fast moving track conveyor which takes them up onto the truck into the hands of someone who quickly stacks them in the back. Perhaps even two tracks with two people loading the bikes onto them and two in the truck receiving them. Right now they’re quoting some ridiculous rebalancing cost like $3 per bike or something. Clearly it’s not being done efficiently. And it’s not as if the rebalancing thing would have to be done constantly throughout the day. Demand for bikes drops off considerably outside of rush hour, so it’s just a matter of dealing with the initial unbalance in the mornings and then maybe evaluating the situation a couple of times throughout the day. Ditto for the evening rush hour.

    And the amount of rebalancing in the mornings could be partially addressed by having bigger stations and more bikes available. There clearly aren’t enough, and that’s why stations in places like the LES empty so quickly. I think the initial NIMBY resistance to bike stations has probably died off somewhat, and people are used to the sight of them now and they’ve come to terms with the fact that none of the ridiculous problems people were predicting have transpired. Those who worry about less parking can just go boil their heads – it’s about time the idea that everyone has the right to store their 2 ton hunk of metal on premium NYC space for free was nipped in the bud. Work on adding more stations and extending existing stations gradually, as membership increases. There are a ton of “dead areas” where stations are few and far between, and great potential exists in these areas for expanding the CitiBike infrastructure with more bikes.

    Personally, I have no interest in dollar van subway shuttles. I just hate using or relying on the subway period. It’s horrible, noisy, dangerous, unhealthy and severely unreliable. I mean I can take the M21 to the subway every morning if I time it right, but it’s slow and we frequently end up in slow moving Houston Street congestion. It’s not that much quicker than walking. Dollar vans are just going to be subject to the same congestion, as well as adding to it.

    Unfortunately for me, no form of bike ownership is going to be a solution. The last time I owned a bike, I was constantly having to fix flats, adjust brakes and suchlike. Nothing worse than having to fix a flat or reseat a slipped chain on your way to work and showing up covered in oil.

  • A new bike that is in good repair will not often have a slipped chain or need a brake adjustment. The occasional visit to your local bike shop will be enough to address these things. A flat can happen at any time, of course; that is a matter of chance. (I once went a year without a flat, and then got two in the space of a week.)

    You have mentioned other reasons that using your own bike to commute doesn’t work for you. But bike maintenence cannot realistically be cited as one of these reasons, as a new bike imposes a very small maintenence burden on its owner.

  • Elizabeth F

    You are not addressing the fundamental issues here.

    Suppose that 1000 people want to leave the LES each morning. Either you find place in the LES for storage of 1000 bikes (and more difficult; place for 1000 bikes wherever they are going). Or you rebalance.

    Let’s suppose you have place for 100 bikes and you rebalance the other 900. Now… instead of providing 1000 bus seats out of the neighborhood in the morning, you need to provide 900 Citibike seats coming back in every morning. Unlike bus riders, Citibikes don’t just walk on the rebalancing van themselves. It’s easy to believe that transporting Citibikes costs more than transporting the same number of people.

    Given all this, it’s easy to believe rebalancing costs $3/bike. But that’s not the worst thing in the world… are you willing to pay $6/day for the convenience of transportation when you want it, where you want it? And you don’t have to buy or maintain your own bike?

    Bike share just isn’t a good fit for one-way rush-hour commutes from residential to business areas. Bike ownership is. But if you’re willing to pay $6/day for the rebalancing, I see no reason someone shouldn’t provide you that service.

    > Dollar vans are just going to be subject to the same congestion, as well as adding to it.

    I hate to break it to you, but Citibike rebalancing vans also add to peak-hour congestion.

    > Unfortunately for me, no form of bike ownership is going to be a solution.

    Look… you can take responsibility for your own transportation. Or you can whine about how a Golden Chariot doesn’t show up to take you wherever you want to go, on your own schedule — for a fraction of what it actually costs to make that Golden Chariot appear at a dock near you. Bikes are so much easier and cheaper to maintain than cars. I spend about $200 on my e-bike once or twice a year, and typically get 1-2 flats per year.
    If you can’t be bothered even to do that, I don’t have much sympathy.

    > Nothing worse than having to fix a flat or reseat a slipped chain on your way to work and showing up covered in oil.

    No, there are plenty of things worse than that. Like… getting delayed 30+ minutes on the subway on a semi-regular basis. Or sitting through 45-minute bridge traffic delays every morning (and evening). The list goes on.

    I get a flat maybe 1-2x/year. Even with my hard-to-service hub motor, I can (and do) fix a rear flat in 30 minutes. Total time spent fixing flats is far less than the subway delays I would regularly encounter if not biking.

    And you’re complaining about reseating chains? Come on, use a stick to re-seat your chain. Carry wet wipes in your backpack. Or better yet… get a bike with an internally geared rear hub. No derailleur, no chain reseat problems. Even better, get a bike with a carbon belt instead of chain, AND an internally geared rear hub. No muss, no fuss.

    There’s a great Raleigh class-1 (i.e. not illegal) e-bike with internally geared hub, for about $2000. I saw it at Danny’s Cycles in New Rochelle. I’d buy it if I din’t already have an e-bike.

  • qrt145

    “Shitload” is right. Consider the station closest to my midtown office. It has about 40 docks. The building where I work has about 40 floors, and there are probably a dozen buildings like it within the “catchment area” of this station. Perhaps 20 thousand people work within this area. Imagine only 1% of them want to use bikeshare to get home, most of them within a very narrow time window. That would already be 200 people! There is no way such a station can suffice, even with rebalancing efforts.

    Bike share is useful for some people and situations, but it doesn’t quite scale as a commuting option for large numbers of people. While I support increasing bikeshare capacity, I think a more scalable solution is to make it easier for commuters to ride their own bikes, and letting bikeshare handle more “random” trips which don’t cause balancing issues as much as much as commuting use does.

  • qrt145

    Maybe you need a more reliable bike. 🙂 I installed puncture-resistant tires and they actually worked! Haven’t had a flat in the last couple of years since I did. Haven’t had a chain slip off in years, either; that can be prevented by adjusting a couple of screws once. Brake adjustments and replacements are hardly frequent, either.

    I do sympathize with the difficulties of storing the bike, and I think that’s where the city should focus its efforts if it wants to make bike commuting an option for more people.

  • William Lawson

    You’re comparing apples to oranges when you compare rebalancing vans to buses. First of all, buses run all day. Constantly. And for a large part of the day, they’re less than half full. I’m talking about using a truck to rebalance select stations once or twice a day, outside of the rush hours, and that truck will always be used to its maximum capacity. Secondly, the average running cost of an MTA bus is $1.40 per passenger per mile. Thirdly, bikes have a smaller footprint than a bus passenger (they can be stacked pretty tightly, don’t require space wasting seats and there is no safety limit dictating maximum ride capacity). The idea that CitiBike’s claimed per-bike rebalancing cost is the absolute last word on the matter is about as credible as the MTA claiming that the subways couldn’t possibly be run any more efficiently, or that we couldn’t possibly cram any more processing power onto a computer chip.

    Personally, I believe the CitiBike annual membership is too cheap. I would have no objection to paying 50% more, especially given how much I save every year from no longer having to buy a monthly Metrocard. Perhaps they could even stick a couple of dollars on the public housing discount as well – $5/month is ridiculously cheap. I also believe they should be offering more flexible memberships, like the ability to subscribe monthly without a year’s commitment. The lack of such options probably denies them some revenue. Case in point: An employee said he could use a CitiBike key to get around during the day and so I offered to reimburse him for it. But I didn’t want to pay him for a full year outright in case he ended up leaving halfway through. A month to month membership would have been ideal in that case.

    I see you’re one of these people who enjoys bike ownership and can’t possibly conceive why the circumstances of others might result in bike ownership not working out for them. I’ll just reiterate: for many reasons, it’s not an option for me. I’ve owned bikes before. I often have to bike somewhere and then travel further on foot (I’m not about to explain the ins and outs of my job btw). I’d either have to carry my bike with me, or travel all the way back to it from wherever I ended up. Believe me, I’ve tried it. Bike sharing is a perfect solution to the problem of city mobility for me and potentially millions of others. That’s why so many people use it instead of owning a bike. It just needs substantial improvement. Is there room for such improvement? Of course there is.

  • William Lawson

    It’s not just bike storage that prevents me from bike ownership (although truthfully, I don’t even have room for any more books let alone a bicycle). It’s the fact that my traveling requirements often see me cycling somewhere and then traveling away from the dock on foot. If I had to go back to my original arrival point, it would be a nightmare. Which is why bike sharing is such a great idea in theory. No matter where I end up, I can always find a bike nearby.

  • qrt145

    You are right that your use case would be better served by bikeshare. Now if we could only get all those people with simple commutes to ride their own bikes instead of overwhelming the bikeshare system…

  • William Lawson

    I’m sure if bike ownership made more sense to them, they’d be bike owners.

  • qrt145

    Maybe it doesn’t make sense to them given the current conditions, which is why I’m suggesting changing the conditions, namely bike parking. Your unusual travel needs are not solved by parking alone, but I’m sure there are many people who work at a single location and only do one round trip per day but prefer bikeshare due to the parking problem.

  • William Lawson

    Actually I’m pretty sure you’d find that the #1 attraction in bike share is that you get to cycle places without having to store and maintain a bicycle, and that it’s not your problem if anything goes wrong with it. Zipcars have the same attraction.

  • CX

    I live in Dallas which now has three dockless systems (VBikes, LimeBike, and Spin). For now, the city has agreed to let the companies proceed without regulation. With the latest release of LimeBikes in the last few weeks, the concept seems to finally be catching on. Its been unclear how many people are riding the bikes because of the novelty, for exercise because they do not own a bike, or for commuting.

    Overnight redistribution mean that bikes are in logical places in the morning, usually at bike racks near parks, apartments, and offices. As the day goes on, there are less bikes at any one location, making the system less convenient for everyone.

    After riding CitiBike and Divvy I think that strategically placed docks/racks would also be good for most other cities. Having the ability to lock the bike itself would provide greater flexibility throughout the system in cities that already have dock systems, allowing users to go further and for the company to collect data on popular locations. In this hybrid scenario I would add general bike racks to every docking station.

    Additionally, I would like to see bikeshare companies experiment with providing incentives to users that help redistribute the bikes. (Maybe some already are?)


Shared bikes in Shanghai. Photo: Mark Gorton

Bike-Share as a Speculative Venture

New York, you may have heard, is about to get invaded by a swarm of bike-share companies - often described as "dockless" bike-share because they use "smart locks," not fixed stations, to secure the bicycles. But dockless systems have been operating in American cities for some time now. The real distinguishing feature of the new arrivals is that they're financed like Silicon Valley start-ups.