To keep people scooting and biking, Lyft and Lime might get free public street space to use for private profit

Does it matter?
6 min. read
Protected bike lanes on 14th Street downtown, May 30, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

UPDATE: The Denver City Council's transportation committee delayed any decision on the licenses, choosing to take up the conversation again on April 27.

Last week, Denver's transportation department tapped Lyft and Lime to replace Denver B-cycle and streamline the city's network of electric scooters. And while the companies offer a popular way to replace pollutive car trips with cleaner ones, the agreement they're trying to finalize with the city is raising questions about long-term sustainability and the use of public streets for private profit.

Unlike the deal Denver had with B-cycle, the city's original bike-share nonprofit, Denverites would not play a role in funding what amounts to a micro-transit system.

"The benefit, much like RTD, is that the people have direct influence over the model and its success," said City Councilmember Chris Hinds, referencing the region's transit system. "Surrendering a public good to private companies can be difficult ... so I'm just a little concerned about moving a public good into a fully private sphere."

Micro-mobility companies currently pay for a permit to operate in the city. But, should the Denver City Council approve their licenses, Lyft and Lime won't pay cash for the right to release their fleets of up to 3,000 scooters and 600 bikes onto city streets. It's a "public-private partnership" agreement, which Denver's government is fond of, for better or for worse.

Denver's transportation department says the companies would exchange the gift of free right-of-way in other ways.

Like giving free and heavily discounted rides to people who can't afford rentals, ensuring bikes and scooters reach further-flung and less wealthy neighborhoods, giving bikes to nonprofits to loan out, and building parking corrals to keep the vehicles off of sidewalks.

"We are ultimately sensitive to the fact that, yes, we are giving a part of the right-of-way to a private company for their profit," said Nicholas Williams, deputy chief of staff for the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. "That is really why we wanted to maximize our leverage on what we could extract from them."

Competitors Lyft and Lime will also supplant all other operators -- Spin and Razor have already left -- causing Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, whose district sees the bulk of scooter and e-bike riders, to label the agreement a "duopoly." She and Councilmember Amanda Sandoval questioned whether private companies can be trusted to carry out the public good.

"I'm afraid as this becomes more of a model in our cities, we're going to back ourselves into a hole where in two years from now, we're not going to get the equity outcomes that you all had hoped for," Sandoval told Williams during a transportation committee meeting on Tuesday.

And Hinds questions whether companies can be trusted to stay long-term, despite getting a five-year license -- which is not yet publicly available. He brought up Ofo and Chariot, two private transportation companies -- Ofo a bike-share business and Chariot a Ford-owned van service -- that are now long gone from Denver streets. All streets, actually. Chariot went under after Ford pulled the plug on it (and after city taxpayers subsidized it). Ofo is now... a shopping app?

Lyft nor Lime granted interview requests in time for this article. Lyft, a publicly traded company, is expected to be profitable by the end of this year.

In the eyes of Denver's transportation department, it's a good trade.

In exchange for the right to use public streets, the city gets fewer people using cars en route to its goal of drastically cutting down on solo driving. A 2019 survey found that 32 percent of scooter riders would have otherwise driven. And having two companies compete for riders will help keep rates down and accountability up, said Williams with DOTI, who listed a range of sanctions if companies violate the agreements.

Denver's street space is too sacred to just give up to private companies and hope for the best, said Jill Locantore, head of the Denver Streets Partnership, which pushes for better walking, biking and transit. When people park scooters and bikes on sidewalks or in the middle of curb ramps, that makes sidewalks impassible for some people, including those with disabilities. Locantore doesn't want to delay the new system, but she is skeptical.

"If we really want to ensure that our public right of way is used for the public good, then it should be fully under public management, which means publicly funding and managing a micro-mobility system," Locantore said. "You can hire private companies to play a role in that, just like RTD contracts with private companies to do some of its transit service, but it's very clearly thought of and managed and funded as  public."

Lyft and Lime will share GPS data with the city to map out pain points -- places where scooters bunch up and block the right- f way. The companies will pay for parking corrals or even charging docks based on their findings, Williams said. DOTI will also deploy parking enforcement agents to collect data while out on the beat. They won't give out tickets because Williams said it's too difficult to find the culprit.

"Vehicles can get parked by someone properly and then some jerk walks by and moves it someplace where it shouldn't be. Does the person that parked it get the ticket? We don't know who the jerk was on that," Williams said.

CdeBaca is skeptical about the ability of Denver's infrastructure, especially in neighborhoods that have seen a lack of public investment for decades, to handle the influx.

Streets in lower-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color tend to be more dangerous, according to city government data, yet the vehicles aren't allowed on sidewalks. The change could result in people having more contact with police, CdeBaca told Denverite.

"We're actually encouraging the operators -- requiring the operators -- to deploy in areas of town where we don't have the infrastructure to legally ride these ... we're encouraging vulnerable neighborhoods to actively break the law, to use these scooters in our neighborhoods and put themselves in danger," she said.

The city council's transportation committee had the chance to advance the license to a vote of the full council but instead delayed the decision until next Tuesday because they wanted more answers from the streets department.

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