Proposed time limit on dockless bike share threatens biking options to Jersey City

For Hudson County bike share users, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  Riders in Hoboken and Jersey City were given access to a network of bike share stations that was unprecedented in the history of our state.  Unfortunately, competing interests threaten to derail what was initially one of the nation’s first system of bike sharing across municipal jurisdictions.

Initially, Hoboken, Jersey City, and Weehawken were set to partner to form Hudson Bike Share, one of the first-ever bike inter-municipal bike share systems. Unfortunately though, Weehawken ended up withdrawing from the program. Jersey City then decided to strike out on its own, abandoning Hudson Bike Share in favor of a partnership with Motivate, the operator of New York City’s Citi Bike system.  As a result, Hoboken was left as the sole participant in Hudson Bike Share, a program that (unlike Citi Bike’s dock-bound system), provided options for dockless use through its nextbike system.

It was this “virtual docking,” facilitated by a fee-free-zone policy in sections of Jersey City, that has since led to conflict between the competing bike share systems.  As a result of Hoboken’s nextbikes being “virtually docked” in public Jersey City bike racks, Jersey City’s council has proposed an ordinance that would limit use of public bike racks by commercial bikes, subjecting them to fines and or impounding.  The ordinance has already been introduced and is scheduled for a public hearing at this week’s City Council meeting.

In the meantime, Hoboken has cut off access to virtual docking outside of the city by removing the fee-free virtual docking policy.  Unfortunately, this does a significant disservice to the many Hoboken bike share users who take their bikes into Jersey City for work or play.

As a matter of principle, the primary objective for any bike share agreement should be the improvement of access for the residents of the communities served.   If bikes from Hoboken’s system are monopolizing public bike rack space in Jersey City, then that’s detrimental to Jersey City bike riders having the access to which they are entitled.  It isn’t fair for the resources of Jersey City to, in effect, subsidize the operation of another city’s bike share company.  However, punitive measures that discourage Hoboken bike share users from entering Jersey City do a disservice to both municipalities.

This issue surfaced as a result of what was alleged to be Hudson Bike Share employees rebalancing bikes in Jersey City. Since nextbike uses GPS technology to track and locate bikes, it should be easy to answer this question, rather than the public speculating on what exactly occurred.

Regardless, bike share policy in both Jersey City and Hoboken should facilitate reciprocal access for their residents, instead of implementing penalties that discourage bike use.  If Hoboken’s bike share users are riding southward, it can only be good for Jersey City.  These riders don’t just bring their bikes; they also bring their wallets.  A similar boost to Hoboken businesses could be achieved if Jersey City bike share users get a Citi Bike docking station installed at Hoboken Terminal.  In return, nextbike docking stations should be put at one or more PATH stations in Jersey City.

Whether or not the total number of Citi Bike docking units at Hoboken Terminal should equal the total number of nextbike docking units in Jersey City is an issue that can be left to the municipalities and bike share operators to determine the particulars. As the nextbike system has the capacity to operate without docks, the calculus that determines how many racks are needed for that system is different than the Citi Bike system.  In any case, accommodating both systems in both cities should be simple, fair, and barrier-free, resulting in a win-win for users of both bike share systems. This approach will further the growth of both bike share systems, as ultimately the number of riders will go up because the systems have been made more accessible and easier to use. Getting more people from Jersey City and Hoboken riding bikes can only be a good thing for both cities.

Currently, the contracts with either or both bike share systems might not allow such an arrangement to take place.  That shouldn’t be a deal-breaker though.  If it isn’t possible to renegotiate or amend the contracts, then instead of implementing a time-limit on commercial bikes, another solution could be for Hoboken to subsidize the installation of additional public bike racks in Jersey City to accommodate for the additional demand generated by Hoboken’s dockless bikes.  (The nextbike app tells precisely when and where a particular bike is being docked.  For instance, if data shows that on average, twelve Hoboken nextbikes can be found “virtually docked” in Jersey City at any given time, then Hoboken can cover the costs of installing public racks in Jersey City to accommodate a total of twelve bikes.  Once again, this solution is simple, fair, reasonable inexpensive, and barrier-free.)

In addition, the definition of “commercial bikes” in Jersey City’s ordinance is something that also makes this ordinance unworkable.  The inclusion of delivery bikes in the definition of “commercial bikes,” would extend punitive measures toward Jersey City’s own small businesses.  A business that pays taxes and fees to Jersey City should be entitled to the same rights to public bike rack space as other Jersey City bike users.  If the problem was that public rack space was being taken up by outside bike share companies, local shops and restaurants shouldn’t also be punished.  As a matter of policy, the use of bikes for deliveries should be encouraged.  The alternative, which could result in cars being used for deliveries instead, is a scenario that for many reasons would not be in the city’s best interests.

It goes without saying that resolving this issue is a complex task.  Nowhere else in the nation are residents faced with the scenario of neighboring (and highly interdependent) cities operating competing bike share systems with potentially overlapping service areas.  However, this presents a great opportunity to provide better access to biking options for the residents of these cities.  Moving forward, Hoboken and Jersey City should resolve to keep that in mind as they pursue a solution.

By Cyndi Steiner, Executive Director, and Aaron Hyndman, Communications Coordinator, New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition