In a little over six months’ time, they’ve become ubiquitous around Seattle; the orange, green and yellow bikes that signify the three competitors in the city’s burgeoning dockless battle.
As Spin, Ofo and LimeBike continue to jostle for market share, each company is taking a different approach to show why it believes it’s the best two-wheeled transportation option in town.
For San Mateo, Calif.-based LimeBike, it starts with the bikes themselves.
Seattle remains the lone market in which the company has rolled out its eight-speed model, and it’s still the only operator to offer that option in the city.
“That’s about as unique as it gets,” said Gabriel Scheer, LimeBike’s director of strategic partnerships. “We created a bike specifically for this market.”
The company is also the first to offer electric-assist bikes (or e-bikes), again using Seattle as its launch market (Spin has also announced the development of an e-bike, but has yet to reveal a rollout date.).
Scheer said he thinks e-bikes are “going to be a game-changer,” making trips on some of the city’s more daunting hills possible for more riders.
He also had praise for his company’s operations team.
“I think we focus really hard on creating a really great customer experience,” he said. “Part of that is making sure our bikes are in places people need them, in good repair, comfortable, and I think we’ve done a really good job of building a high-quality product, and making sure that it stays in a place where people who want it can find it.”
But that’s also where Beijing-based Ofo believes it has an advantage.
Taylor Bennett, the company’s head of communications for North America, said Ofo approaches each market from a very local level.
“It’s an exercise in operations, and we’re good at that,” Bennett said. “We’ve got that down to a science.”
Both companies have also publicly revealed select ridership stats on their first months in the city.
Perhaps most notably, LimeBike reported that 45 percent of its trips either started or ended near a public transit station in its year-end report, while Ofo put that figure at approximately half of its Seattle rides.
Those early numbers give a boost to those who see the dockless bike share program as a way to solve the “last-mile” problem for commuters, from transit to their final destination.
“We’re proud of that,” Bennett said. “It’s starting to fill that void.”
“To me, that speaks a really strong story to how this is a complement to existing transit options, so [we’re] pretty excited about that,” he said.
LimeBike also noted in its report that there were just more than 100,000 active riders in five months. Eight percent of all rides came during morning rush hour, and nearly 40 percent during evening rush hour.
Scheer said the company was also well aware that weather would be a factor as the year wound down.
“We knew we would face ridership challenges with the rain, and that happened, they’ve dropped, but they haven’t dropped as badly as we expected,” he said.
Bennett noted that Ofo had seen “continued growth even in the winter months.”
Besides weather, all three operators have faced the challenges of rolling out an entirely new system.
Bennett mentioned the “growing pains” that come with anything big entering a new city.
“There’s just not awareness of how the station-free model is really meant to fit into the city, and so that’s part of our job, is really educating users on the model itself,” he said.
In general, Scheer said it’s been a welcome surprise how people have treated the system respectfully.
“They park appropriately — by in large — and the number of calls has not been horrendous,” he said. “Our response time has been really good to the calls, and that’s validating, but really we don’t want the calls to come, because we want people to park appropriately.”
While Spin did not respond to a request for comment by publication time, CEO Derrick Ko told the Queen Anne & Magnolia News last summer that early on, his company found people had been “super, super responsible” about parking their bikes.
To some extent, pricing has also become a point of competition. Both LimeBike and Spin have a standard $1 rate per 30 minutes of use, while $1 gets riders one hour on an Ofo bike.
However, that company has offered free rides since mid-December through a series of promotions.
“As we kicked off 2018, we said, ‘Hey, let’s give free rides, thank the communities we’re already in,’” Bennett said.
LimeBike also offered free trips to all for a period in early January, but is now incentivizing riders to help rebalance its system. Anyone who rides a “bonus bike,” — marked in the app as a moneybag — for more than five minutes gets a free ride.
“That helps you, it helps us, it helps everybody,” Scheer said.
He also mentioned that the company has improved its “prebalancing” efforts to anticipate demand.
“[For the] morning commute, we know that there are going to be bikes in certain places that we need to transit, and we’ll make sure that there are bikes there,” he said. “Evening commute — same story but much bigger.”
Meanwhile, the Seattle Department of Transportation is looking at the data collected during the pilot through December, with a decision on an ongoing program expected in the spring.
“As SDOT reviews the data collected over the 6 month period to determine if a permanent program is feasible, and if so, what the final permitting regulations would require,” said SDOT Public Relations Supervisor Norm Mah in an email. ”SDOT is committed to multimodal transportation options.”
In the meantime, operators are anxious to expand. Bennett said Ofo is “really excited” to grow within the market, while Scheer said 2018 will be a year of “continued fast growth” for LimeBike.