Popping up around uptown Charlotte and its surrounding neighborhoods recently are neon orange and green bikes that at times look abandoned: They are not locked into designated racks and are often scattered in random places.
The newest “dockless” bikeshares are part of a growing trend in Charlotte as the city works to make itself into a friendlier city for bikers. They’re dockless because users don’t have to return bikes to designated racks when they’re done using them.
The new bike companies, Spin and LimeBike, join a number of existing bikeshares already in Charlotte including B-Cycle, the city’s oldest.
A growing bike-share market not only presents more competition and options for commuters, but it also brings challenges for the city, including safety concerns. Ultimately, though, the growth of bikeshares could help make the city less dependent on cars, experts say.
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Currently, only 0.3 percent of commuters in Charlotte rely on bikes as their primary transport, according to the League of American Bicyclists. By comparison, 7.2 percent of commuters go by bike in Portland, representing the highest percentage of bike commuters of any large American city.
“Charlotte has a long way to go,” in becoming more bike-friendly, said Dianna Ward, the executive director of Charlotte B-cycle and the president of the North American Bike Share Association. But having more bikes around, even if they compete with B-cycle, is helpful.
“If we’re going to become a city of bikes, then anyone that wants to support that mission, I think that’s a good thing,” she added.
The city’s seen an explosion of new bike-share companies recently.
Charlotte Wheels, a UNC Charlotte program, launched July 31 with 100 bikes available at more than 10 on-campus hubs. In August, Texas-based VBikes rolled out dozens of bikes into uptown. Last month, LimeBike and Spin were among the newest bike-share companies launch in Charlotte.
“This is no different from any other sector in the economy. There’s room for all of us,” Ward said.
Spin and LimeBike are only in their first month of operation in Charlotte, but the city has received a few complaints, including obstruction of sidewalks and overuse of public bike racks, according to Alex Riemondy, a planner at the Charlotte Department of Transportation.
Some residents have also noticed that the bikes, which include GPS tracking and locks that can be undone via a smartphone app, have been vandalized by having their QR unlocking codes cut off.
One way LimeBike is combating that is by doubling the thickness of the card with the QR code on it, said Sidney McLaurin, LimeBike’s general manager for North Carolina. The bikes have two other spots for the codes: on the handlebars and back benders.
LimeBike started in Charlotte with about 200 bikes, but will have expanded to nearly 500 by the end of the week, McLaurin said.
Another concern among riders is helmet safety.
In North Carolina, state law requires every person under 16 years old to wear an approved bike helmet when on any public road or bike path. Those over 16 can opt out of wearing a helmet, though.
And most bikeshares don’t provide one. B-Cycle, however, will give them away to riders who seek them, Ward said. Spin and LimeBike both encourage their users to wear their own.
“Helmets have been demonstrated to add a certain level of safety to crash incidents. But there’s no state law or local law to enforce that. It is an individual choice at this point,” said Buzz Morley, the city manager for Spin.
McLaurin, from LimeBike, noted that most of the trips LimeBike users take are less than a mile.
The city’s original bike-share program B-Cycle launched in August 2012 with 200 bikes at 20 stations throughout uptown and surrounding neighborhoods. The plan now is to grow the number of B-Cycle bikes to 400 to 500 over the next 18 months or so, according to Ward, citing Center City Partners’ 2020 Vision Plan from 2011.
Increasing biking transit is intended to help reduce traffic congestion, encourage street-level retail development and promote healthy lifestyles, among other benefits, according to the plan.
B-Cycle, Ward said, is a reliable source especially for uptown commuters in a rush. “If they need to be (at work) by 8, they can’t be searching for their bike,” she said. That could be the case with Spin or LimeBike bikes, since they don’t have docking stations.
Also part of B-Cycle’s expansion plan is moving into densely populated areas lacking docking stations, such as Montford and Crescent Stonewall Station uptown.
Another way the city’s looking into becoming more bike-friendly? Protected bike lanes.
In October, a lane of traffic was closed on parts of Sixth and Fifth streets, creating a temporary bike lane walled off from automobile traffic. The city is still gathering feedback from the pilot, but will start designing a permanent protected bike lane uptown in 2018. Because of construction, it’ll be at least another two years until that’s in place, though.