Two competing bike-share companies are considering putting a fleet of bikes in Portland using a “dockless” technology that is rapidly expanding their business across the United States.

LimeBike and Spin provide bicycles equipped with GPS tracking and built-in locks that don’t need to be parked at permanent docking stations. Both companies have approached Portland officials to inquire about coming to the city, which is considering its own nonprofit bike-share program.

The two venture capital-funded companies started this year, and have already put bicycles on the streets of several U.S. cities, including major metro areas such as Seattle and Washington, D.C. Now they plan to experiment in smaller communities as part of a national expansion.

“Portland is definitely one we have had our eyes on,” said Gabriel Scheer, director of strategic development for LimeBike. “What will be interesting to me is seeing how this will work.”

Plans for a bike-share program in Portland have germinated for years. A city-commissioned study in 2013 said Portland was prime for a bike-share system, but recommended that a nonprofit, not the city, manage its development. The nonprofit, Portland Bike Share, was formed and this year launched a $400,000 fundraising campaign with plans to put up to 50 bikes and a handful of docking stations on city streets in 2018.

But dockless technology might make it to Portland before a station-based system does.

“The bike-share landscape has changed a lot since we began this project two years ago,” the Portland Bike Share board of directors said in a statement. “We are currently evaluating what these new innovations mean for Portland Bike Share and how we can best assist the implementation of bike share in Portland.”

LimeBike and Spin offer brightly colored – green and orange, respectively – bicycles that are located and unlocked with a smartphone app. When riders are done, they can park the bike in a legal place and leave it for the next rider. Trips cost $1 per half hour.

Station-based bike-share systems take years of planning and often require city funding, said Scheer, from LimeBike.

By comparison, companies like LimeBike, backed with millions of dollars in venture capital, can deploy rapidly and without infrastructure or public investment, he said. Free from permanent stations, bikes disperse throughout a city to places people need them, providing more choice and freedom for riders, Scheer said. The company also rebalances bikes, making sure they do not cluster in only a few areas.

“We do work really hard to serve the whole city,” Scheer said.

Spin did not respond to a request for an interview, but in a written statement to the Press Herald, CEO Derrick Ko said it hopes “to introduce our convenient, affordable and equitable dockless bike-share system to the residents of Portland soon.”

GROWING OPTIONS FOR BIKE SHARE

Portland officials are developing rules on bike share in response to inquiries from the two companies within the last month.

“I think there is a lot of interest in Portland. They see it as a potential market, they know there is a lot of local interest in the concept,” said Jeff Levine, director of planning and urban development.

Regulations will help manage liability issues such as abandoned bikes and unregulated users that could create public safety problems, Levine said in a September memo to the City Council. Other cities have dealt with problems from poorly or illegally parked shared bicycles.

Draft rules for bike-share companies are being considered by the city’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee. The proposed regulations include a $500 annual sidewalk occupancy permit and additional fees for each bike and station. City staff would be able to set other regulations like required insurance, a cap on the number of bike-share companies allowed and reimbursement for city oversight of the system.

“At this point the staff doesn’t have a position on whether to allow one or more dockless bike-share systems in Portland, or whether the current nonprofit model with Portland Bike Share will better serve the public, or some combination,” Levine said.

Spin, based in San Francisco, and LimeBike, based in San Mateo, California, are at the forefront of a dockless bike-share boom that is already hugely popular in China. The two companies have put bikes in about 10 cities, including San Francisco, Dallas and Washington, D.C.

When the two companies came into Seattle this summer to replace its failed bike-share system with a dockless model, they quickly outperformed the former system based on the number of rides, according to The Seattle Times.

The trend is catching on in New England, too. Ofo, a bike-share company in China, rolled out 400 bikes in Worcester, Massachusetts, in September as part of its push into the U.S. market.

Problems with illegal parking, vandalism and theft have followed dockless programs, however. In the two weeks after four companies launched in Washington, D.C., dockless bikes were found abandoned or parked inappropriately, like in the middle of the sidewalk or in front of home entrances, according to The Washington Post. Similar problems were reported in Seattle and Dallas. Bike-share companies say they are working to limit those issues by quickly collecting abandoned and poorly parked bikes and notifying users about correct parking procedures.

Samantha Herr, president of Portland Bike Share and executive director of the North American Bike Share Association, said dockless technology was a major theme at the association’s annual conference in late August. The trend is so new and developing so quickly that it is tough to gauge what effect it will have on bike-share in the U.S., Herr said.

“I would say that the future is very unknown. The reality of startups is that most of them don’t stick around,” Herr said. “By and large, it is not replacing systems that exist, and there are still systems launching with stations.

“Right now, what it looks like is we are looking at a diversification of bike-sharing options.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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