Parable of LimeBike: What if the City Council Treated Bike Share Like Housing?

The other day I was at a meeting in Fremont. When it was done, I decided I’d just walk back to my office in South Lake Union. It was a beautiful day, I could make calls and still send a couple e-mails on the way. I got a across the Fremont Bridge, and there, right on the other side, was a LimeBike. LimeBike is a bike share service that allows customers to download an application on a phone, use it to locate and then unlock a bike. The bikes are, increasingly, everywhere. So ubiquitous and easy to use that I stopped, looked at the bike, and thought, “Hmmm.” I took out my phone and pointed the camera feature to the code on the bike, and bam! it unlocked. In less than a minute I was riding down the bike path. How much did it cost? Nothing. Zero. It was free. More importantly, the trip saved me time. Eventually, the price will go up to — are you sitting down — $1 a ride. LimeBike along with at least two other such services are able to provide this service low cost because it’s been permitted, there is lots of competition, and there is lots of demand. It’s working!

As a story on CNN pointed out, Seattle has gone from a complete failure in bike sharing to a national leader in a matter of months. Market solutions work. Fast. Consider how the removal of price controls by Ludwig Erhard obliterated hyperinflation in Berlin after the Second World War. So like I did with my hot dog and corn dog examples, I wondered, what would happen if the City Council got a hold of the growing bike share market. Here’s what I think might happen.


Seattle Times — Citing concerns about the rapid rise of local bike share companies, some of them from China, renting bikes for as little as a $1 a trip Councilmember Lisa Herbold is proposing legislation to impose stricter limits on the number and location of the bikes. Also supported by Councilmembers Mike O’Brienand Kshama Sawant , the legislation would limit the total number of bikes to 300 and increase that by 25 per year after Council approval. Companies could apply to add more bikes for a fee after an extensive design review process evaluating the look and feel of the bikes. People living close to where the bikes are placed would be empaneled for a 3 month review process.

“We’re worried these bikes aren’t accessible to all,” said O’Brien, “and many of them are downright ugly, ruining the character of the neighborhood.” The Council’s legislation will mandate equal distribution across census tracts. In areas of “low opportunity” adding bikes will come with a higher charge and more intensive review.

“For too long people in the poorest areas of the city have gone without bikes; if a company wants to add more in those areas, they’ll have to pay,” said Sawant. “These big corporations are making profit from selling basic necessities.”

To be sure that bikes are affordable a new fee will be assessed on each bike ranging from $1 to $25, with the highest charges being in Rainier Beach. Funds collected from the program will be granted out to non-profit bike share companies. An official from one of these companies Bikeplex said, “we just don’t have enough affordable bikes.” Bikeplex has 5 bikes that it rents for free but has had trouble producing more. “We have a lot more rules taking money from the City and that makes our costs much higher than the for profit guys.” The City couldn’t cite a figure for how many free bikes the program would produce. “We’re still figuring out the numbers,” said a planner.

“Once again the Council is trying to make something less expensive by increasing its price,” said bitter housing activist guy Roger Valdez. “Instead of increasing access to bikes as a great alternative to driving this will just raise prices and discourage people will less money to use them and they’ll drive instead.”

When asked for his reaction, Kevin Ridsdale, an occasional commenter on the City Builder Facebook said, “What?”

The Mandatory Access and Diversity Bike program, MAD Bike for short, will be debated but already has broad support on the Council and from the Mayor. Stopped on his way to a ceremony removing various statues around town the Mayor said, “the MAD program is our way of telling Donald Trump: ‘Your views aren’t welcome here!”

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