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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Lime Disease: Is This Where Bike Share Goes To Die?

Getting around and through Seattle’s transportation mess, you learn to give up asking questions about the darndest things. Empty Sound Transit-subsidized SDOT streetcars crawling through the International District. Utility workers digging up the busiest streets at the worst times. Speeding electric skateboards with oblivious ear-budded riders slaloming through pedestrians on thronged sidewalks. And perhaps most annoying, the scourge of bike-shares making obstacle courses out of our urban landscape.

But nothing quite prepared me Saturday when I stumbled into what appears to be the Ground Zero of Bike Share, a jammed junkyard-style parking lot outside a nondescript warehouse at 8th Ave NW and 46th in Ballard.

Answers elicited from the lone worker on site did little to explain. He was sitting on a folding chair stripping bike electronics parts with pliers for what he said was recycling.  He got up for a bit to make a futile effort at moving some of the bikes that blocked the sidewalk, because, he said, a wheelchair would never be able to get thorough. I thought that was commendably conscientious but grimly ironic in its futility. He related something about an electrical power outage in the warehouse so that the bikes that needed fixing were piling up. These were second generation bikes, he explained. New bikes were coming, he had heard, but he didn’t know when. 

Later I learned that the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) had recently spanked the bike share companies by lowering the number of bikes they could operate, on account of excessive sidewalk bike-parking violations. But the new caps wouldn’t have required Lime to shrink its fleet back to this parking lot. That’s because SDOT set the new caps at thousands of bikes above what SDOT reports bike-share vendors are actually deploying.  So much for SDOT’s biting penalty strategy. 

At the Ballard Lime warehouse, I was also struck by all the idle white box vans, home-based for the moment and not out on the streets where they would usually be schlepping bikes here, or there.  I’ve always wondered how much fossil fuel must be used by unmarked vans packed with climate-friendly electric bikes. Next time you’re at a traffic light behind on of these incognito fossil fuel vans, imagine it full of electric bikes.

And don’t even think about sustainability in the larger sense, such as the resources it takes manufacturing the bikes out of aluminum, copper and lithium in China and then bringing them to Seattle on big trucks and container ships. And where do all the worn-out bikes and their electronic recyclings go when the riding days are over and bikes must leave Ballard for the afterlife?

So many mysteries. 

So what’s the story? Is the fleet defective and breaking down faster than the repairers can keep up (hence the waiting for Next Gen Limes)? Is the company failing (which would explain the lack of more robust maintenance activity)? Or are the good-but-exasperated burghers of Seattle rebelling by vandalizing the bright-colored curb litter in a stepped-up protest?

Emails to SDOT and Lime so far have produced no answers.  That’s pretty typical for the SDOT bike-share program. I have filed a public disclosure request to dig out what SDOT does or doesn’t know.  Regrettably, curious citizens’ public disclosure requests to the City of Seattle invariably go into a 30-day reply hopper. Answers to the Lime Bike pile-up at an out of the way warehouse in Ballard may take a while. 

I’ll let you know.

Image: Doug MacDonald

Doug MacDonald
Doug MacDonald
Doug MacDonald has served as chief executive in infrastructure agencies in Massachusetts (Greater Boston drinking water/wastewater) and Washington State (Secretary of Transportation, 2001-2007). His best job was fifty years ago as a rural extension agent in the Peace Corps in Malawi in southern Africa. He has written on the environment, transportation and politics for professional and general publications for many years.

6 COMMENTS

  1. What about a program at the various prisons to repair and even build the bikes outright instead of using another country? I know it woukd be welcome by a vast majority of prisoners to learn skills and give back to society? It would be run as a perk for good behavior and start thinking USA instead of China.

  2. Hi Doug, in 2003 I bought an electric bike from a nice chap who ran a store in Fremont, Electric Vehicles NW. The bicycle was made by Giant bikes, and was styled like the Schwinn balloon-tired bikes of yesteryear. The bike looked nice, rode well, even had a shock-absorbing seat-post! Its 350-watt motor with Nickel-Cadmium battery helped me on hills, and on the flat I mostly pedaled without the motor. in 15 months I had logged about 8,000 miles, got far more exercise than if I drove, and I loved it. Even had a lightweight set of rain-gear for those typical rainy days. I also added fenders, because, well, rain.

    My bike was MY bike, though, not a rental to be ridden a ways and then left wherever. Responsibility for the property is missing with rental bikes. Leave it anywhere. “It isn’t mine, so what do I care?” is the problem.

    The answer may be in not having random rentals, but personal accountability, a bike assigned to a person until returned to an approved location – and then locked so it stays there until rented by someone else – to end the duration of one’s personal responsibility for the bike.

    Will people do that, though? Has it been TRIED?

    Perhaps it could, but if not rented at a shop, some logistical business planning would be needed. It might be a simple thing to do, evolving the business model to have users be responsible for the bike’s location until it is in a location that is not blocking others, and then, when it is in an approved, “non-interfering” location, the commitment period is ended.

  3. I’m sure it has been said many times before, but walking is obviously the most enviromnentally sensitive way to get around an urban core. And, can you believe it, people seem to inherently understand that since far, far more people walk around town than bike. So where did this obsession with cycling come from? Urban planning schools where theory “trumps” (i.e., where, just as with our president, facts don’t matter) real world realities? And what abour those dedicated bike lanes that you can sit and watch for hours and at most see a handfull of bikes pass by? On the other hand this obsession does serve a useful purpose. It allows the bike activists who clearly are lacking in self-esteem to feel morally superior to the rest of us.

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