By Armand Resto-Spotts, Attorney
This article originally appeared in the April 12, 2019 edition of the Vancouver Business Journal.
Free-floating, dockless bike share programs are quickly becoming a common means of transportation within cities. According to the Bicycle Product Supplies Association, in the first half of 2018, electric bicycle (e-bike) sales were up approximately 83 percent from the prior year, and industry analysts project continued growth. In the United States, the dockless rideshare apps have primarily boomed in the highly urbanized, densely populated cities—like Seattle—providing a relatively cheap, efficient means to avoid traffic congestion and navigate difficult terrain or weather.
Now, dockless e-bike share programs are spreading to less dense, more suburban-sprawl cities. The public, local business owners, and smaller jurisdictions that are residential in nature with a confined commercial core—such as Vancouver—should be especially cognizant of the property and land use issues that come with ride share programs.
State law and local regulation
Washington state has a three-tier electric bicycle classification system, differentiating between speeds and motor usage. Generally, when considering bike share programs around the state, Class 1 and 3 electric bicycles are used—the former maxes out at 20 mph, and the latter provides assistance up to 28 miles per hour and includes a speedometer. All three classes of e-bikes can legally be ridden anywhere a standard bicycle can be ridden. However, Washington state law expressly prohibits operation of Class 3 e-bikes and motorized scooters on sidewalks and shared use paths, unless there is no alternative for the scooter or e-bike to travel over a sidewalk as part of a pedestrian path, or if the local jurisdiction allows for the use.
Conditions of use can be further limited by local jurisdictions, which can regulate the areas where and under what conditions e-bikes may be operated. For example, in Seattle, e-bikes can use the sidewalk, so long as it is done in a "careful and prudent manner" and they yield to pedestrians, while in Bellingham, e-bikes are not allowed on sidewalks.
Impacts to the public and business
Aside from the safety and injury-related issues that inevitably arise with e-bike programs, the obvious legal issue with rideshare programs is the storage and operation of the bicycles.
Dockless bikes by their very nature do not require a parking station when not in use. Users can simply park the bicycles anywhere—sidewalks, yards, from a tree limb—and lock them via smartphone app. Unfortunately, unless the jurisdiction requires permits for the bike share companies to operate and specify parking locations, users are well within their right to park the bicycles anywhere that is not privately owned.
Business owners and other pedestrians should not be tasked with the obligation to keep the public rights-of-way clear and unobstructed. However, until and unless the jurisdiction implements a strong regulatory scheme to manage the rideshare program, individuals will need to exercise self-help in clearing away docked bicycles that may be obstructing their business' frontage or another public place. Even in the case of a strong permitting scheme, companies and municipalities cannot enforce user non-compliance completely.
Individuals should continue to raise the issues with their local governments and civil authorities, which can cite and enforce restrictions on bicycles within the sidewalk.
Local regulations and permitting
Jurisdictions like Seattle, who have had the bike share programs for longer periods of time, should be viewed as prime examples for smaller jurisdictions to incorporate regulations to ensure that the dockless system does not harm local business or negatively impact the public's rights of access.
As an initial matter, jurisdictions new to the dockless rideshare programs should implement code provisions relating to when, where, and under what conditions bicycles can be used in the public rights-of-way. For example, cities should consider whether users are required to wear helmets, or whether users can operate the bikes on the sidewalk along streets without bicycle lanes. Further, if bicycles can be parked within public rights-of-way, should they be limited to designated "parking" zones, or within a specific distance away from the entrance of a place of business?
Separate from regulations, jurisdictions should consider implementing a permitting scheme, such as bike-share permits. These permits would incorporate right-of-way use terms (e.g., scope of use of the sidewalk), safety requirements, and designate areas of use within the city limits. These permits would be revocable with non-compliance, which ensures that companies, not just the public and jurisdiction, stay on top of the nuisances like parking obstructions.
Finally, municipal planning staffs should consider whether developers' incorporation of dockless "parking stations" or "hubs" near certain residential or multi-family developments would constitute "mini-transportation" improvements. Theoretically, the e-bike system is reducing traffic on the roads, and developers with anticipated traffic impacts from a proposed project can help further incentivize "less cars on the road" by planning for these e-bike issues.
The first priority for a jurisdiction new to the growing dockless rideshare programs should be early and open discussion and planning on the regulatory and permitting front to ensure that the benefits of the rideshare industry do not come at the detriment of non-users and the public generally.
Armand Resto-Spotts is an attorney at Jordan Ramis PC who focuses his practice on land use, real estate, and environmental law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (360) 567-3900.