By Caitlin Clark
Published: May 20, 2018
An Ofo bike is left in a rack outside Blue Bell Park at Texas A&M University on Saturday.
Ofo's yellow bicycles have become ubiquitous around the Texas A&M campus -- with a few thousand more on the way -- the city of College Station is studying potential regulations for dockless bike-sharing.
The university's pilot program with the Chinese bike-sharing company Ofo began in late February with 500 bicycles, which quickly ramped up to 850.
With plans for that number to increase to between 3,000 and 4,000 bikes by the start of the fall semester, city staff likely will move quickly to bring back regulations for the City Council to consider later this summer.
While city leaders across the country and state are studying or have already put out rules and guidelines for bike-share companies, College Station has yet to identify a comparable community that's dealt with the phenomenon.
"It's unique in that I think this is the first city in which [bike-sharing] was brought in with the university as a partner," said Special Projects Coordinator Aubrey Nettles.
Ron Steedly, Texas A&M's Sustainable Transportation manager, confirms that the university is the "pioneer" for rolling out such a bike-share program on a college campus.
That meant about nine months of research before the program began in late February.
"The fact that we're going to be the ones that figure it out, I think, is huge," Steedly said.
Steedly says the program was well-received in the two months for which there's available data.
In March, 8,948 active riders logged 39,016 miles and 77,167 rides on Ofo bikes. And in April, by which time users were paying for the service, there were 9,758 riders who rode 34,223 miles on 67,472 rides.
Paris Arthur rides a Ofo bike around Texas A&M University's campus on Saturday afternoon.
Despite the program's popularity with users, some residents have complained about cases of mis-parked Ofo bikes.
While they're meant to be left in bike racks within the program's geo-fenced area -- which for now includes campus and a few apartment complexes --
yellow bikes have turned up everywhere from atop the Corps Arches, on the 12th Man statue at Kyle Field and in trees, just to name a few of the unapproved locations.
More commonly, they're seen tipped over in grassy areas and on sidewalks or otherwise incorrectly parked.
One resident told the City Council on Monday that he and another motorist had to stop on Francis Drive early one recent morning to remove two bikes that had been left in the roadway.
Mayor Karl Mooney acknowledged during the same meeting that "we [council members] hear the clamor" about the bikes.
While a photo of a mischievously placed yellow bike makes for a good viral post, Steedly said those instances only represent a 2 to 3 percent "error rate."
The geo-fenced zone in which users are supposed to park the bikes doesn't yet include any private properties, but they're still being ridden and left across both cities.
College Station also has received calls from other companies interested in launching their own services here.
Nettles said the City Council will be presented with examples of how other cities have responded to the companies, adding that Texas A&M will be kept involved throughout the process.
She compares the situation to how the city had to react quickly to transportation network companies -- such as Uber and Lyft -- a few years ago.
"The market creates this brand-new service model that we're not used to, so we don't have the regulations in place, and we have to respond to the market," Nettles said.
The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy put out a report last week urging local governments to "organize the chaos" of dockless bike-share programs through transit integration,
data sharing, public space management, user protections and dedicated staff.
Earlier this month, the city of Austin rolled out emergency rules for dockless bikes and scooters that include regulations that they be capable of being locked to a bike rack
or be equipped with technology that lets the user know if they've parked in a designated, geo-fenced parking area.
Dallas is now drafting an ordinance after thousands of bikes that began to arrive there last year soon littered the city.
It's unclear at this point what College Station may end up adopting, but Nettles said council members probably will want to have something figured out in the next few months.
She's also reached out to the city's lobbyist about the issue, as there's the potential it could be taken up during the state's next legislative session;
after Texas cities passed their own transportation network ordinances, they were undone in 2017 by statewide ride-hailing regulations that were passed by the legislature.
For the time being, a point system within the Ofo app -- which is what allows users to locate, unlock and pay for a bike -- encourages good behavior.
Riders earn points for things such as parking in a preferred area, completing a ride and reporting an illegally parked bike. Improperly locking a bike and parking illegally or outside the geo-fence leads to points being docked.
Steedly said those bad actors are penalized and given a warning -- and after a certain point, they can be locked out of the service.
App users are encouraged to both report misuse of the bikes and take the next step of rolling bikes over to a bike rack to encourage good behavior in the next user, Steedly said.
Community members also can report bikes that need to be moved by emailing a photo to firstname.lastname@example.org. As new students arrive to campus and begin using Ofo, though, Steedly said he thinks instances of rogue bikes will decrease.
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