Who would’ve thought the age-old argument over human nature would’ve been settled by something as mundane as dockless bikeshare bicycles? The theory was that if people are essentially good and well-meaning, then they’d treat the bikes with respect and return them to their proper place even though no one is watching. On the other hand, if people are essentially bad and corrupt, they’d trash the bikes and throw them in the canal just because they can. Guess what they’ve been doing.
In DC, the dockless bikes have been found chucked into the C&O canal, vandalized and discarded under the Key Bridge, abandoned (and subsequently impounded) at monuments, stacked in the middle of crosswalks, and just generally scattered anywhere they’re not supposed to be. Just last week, a man threw a LimeBike onto the tracks at the Minnesota Avenue metro station, single-tracking service for hours afterward, and damaging the undercarriage of one of the new trains. In Seattle, which has about twice as many dockless bikeshares as DC, people have gotten even more creative; bikes have been balanced on top of stop signs, snarled together in piles seven feet high, thrown up into trees, and taken out under the freeway and stripped. Never to be outdone in the area of pointless sadism, China (where the dockless bikeshare was created) has taken the practice of bikeshare vandalism to insane lengths; riders there have actually thrown the bikes into the ocean, and used them to create barricades across sidewalks. Some taxi drivers, angry over losing business to the cheap bikes, have begun sabotaging them, and supply has outstripped demand so much that viral photos of the country’s massive, surreal bike graveyards have become one of China’s main exports.
So does that mean that the dockless bikeshare is a failure? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it hasn’t gone very well. No in the sense that no matter how badly it goes, dockless bikeshares aren’t going anywhere. In DC, there are four dockless bikeshare companies: MoBike, Ofo, LimeBike, and Spin and Jump. MoBike and Ofo are based in China, and have each raised over a billion dollars in funding, and LimeBike is backed by Andressen Horowitz, who were early backers of Twitter, Instagram, and Skype. Meaning that you could literally throw every single one of DC’s 1600 dockless bikeshares into the Potomac and the companies wouldn’t even blink before putting new ones out.
That seems like kind of a stupid business model, unless you consider that the companies aren’t in the bikesharing business so much as they’re in the data collection business. This is hardly a conspiracy theory; analysts have stated that the data collected by bikeshares is as valuable as gold in the era of the Smart City. Much like today’s Uber isn’t so much a taxi company as a foot-in-the-door for a monopolized AI-controlled swarm of driverless cars, isn’t it plausible that bikeshares are just a means to collect valuable data on a young, urban demographic? Experts say that bikeshare consoles and apps could soon use riders’ personal data to target them with personalized ads, but this misses the big picture. Precise data on bikeshare users – where they live, where they go, what routes they take – would be priceless to developers, real estate speculators, and business owners. Access to this data would take almost all the guesswork – and risk – out of house flipping or opening a restaurant or cafe. If you already know exactly where Millennials go, all you have to do is put yourself in their path and then rake in the profits. Do you really think the top venture capital firm in the world would back a company if their ultimate business plan was, “we’re gonna put a bunch of bikes out and charge people to use them”? Right now, gentrification is a somewhat halting organic process, but this kind of data collection could make it much faster and more efficient – we’re talking about laser-guided, data-driven hyper-gentrification. When you think about it like that, maybe the people throwing the bikes in the canal and onto the train tracks are just trying to stave off their inevitable rent increases?