Denver officials pick Lime and Lyft to run the city’s shared bike and scooter system

Transportation experts hope the streamlined system will continue to decrease driving trips and connect people to buses and trains. Some decision-makers feel protective of the right-of-way and are wary of the private companies.
6 min. read
A Lime scooter parked in a parking spot, Aug. 6, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

UPDATE: City Council passed both contracts. The contract with Lyft passed by a vote of 8-4, while the contract with Lime passed 9-3.

Denver will get a new citywide network of bikes and scooters for people to ride if the Denver City Council gives its blessing Monday night.

Lawmakers will decide whether to boot all other bike- and scooter-share companies out of the city in favor of two licenses -- one for Lime and one for Lyft, both of which would provide up to 3,000 electric scooters and at least 600 pedal and electric bikes for locals and tourists to get where they need to go.

The licenses differ from the city's current agreements with private micro-mobility companies, which are still operating in Denver as part of a pilot. The licenses last five years and have a raft of requirements, including service in every neighborhood, designated parking spots, free and subsidized passes, and enforcement meant to keep the vehicles out of people's paths in exchange for the right to deploy their fleets on city streets.

"(The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure) is not here to advocate for the use of right-of-way and have it not being handled correctly," said Jason Gallardo, director of government affairs for the streets department. "We were here to say that we came up with a license agreement that will now fix these problems, and if not, then they'll be penalized for it."

If Lime and Lyft users ride on sidewalks -- they're supposed to use streets -- or park them in a way that obstructs people from walking or using a wheelchair, the companies will face penalties like smaller fleet sizes that transportation officials said would hurt their bottom line. DOTI will deploy parking enforcement officers to document violations and anyone can report them to 311, but it will be up to the companies to right the wrongs before they get penalized.

For example, even if just 10 scooters are misplaced in a 90-day period, Lime and Lyft would face fleet reductions, Gallardo said. City Councilmember Paul Kashmann is skeptical that the companies would be able to clean things up.

"I can't believe these companies can do that from where they've been to where you're saying they need to get," Kashmann said. "I don't believe they can do it."

Dedicated parking spaces are key to things working out how DOTI wants them to.

The vehicles are "dockless," meaning they're rented with an app and not tethered to stations, which has resulted in riders leaving them in the path of pedestrians and wheelchair users.

In the first six months of the license, the companies must create at least 100 areas where people can park the bikes and scooters, 200 in the first year. They'll be a mixture of painted parking spots, designated corrals, and docks where the vehicles can charge, said Stephen Rijo, a transportation planner with DOTI.

"We're going to strongly encourage people to use those designated areas," said Lyft spokesperson Jordan Levine. "And we've already scoped our places that are high traffic, near transit and popular venues, and near areas where we're seeing high scooter usage, to try and make it as convenient as possible for riders."

Denver could have 675 of these areas on streets and sidewalks five years from now, Rijo said.

"One interesting piece of this agreement is in many other cities, the contracts are set up so that it's on the city to install the infrastructure (and) challenges that come with that," Rijo said. "We set up these contracts so that it's on the operators to install the infrastructure, which we think will allow them to roll it out much more quickly because it's certainly in their interest in our interest to get those installed."

City Councilmember Amanda Sandoval is against the licenses in part because she dislikes the idea of private companies profiting from the use of public street space without paying for it. But some say that take is a double standard, while others argue Denver is getting a good deal.

"You're giving our right-of-way away for free," Sandoval said. "And once you give our right-of-way away, you can't get it back."

Private companies, including Lime and Lyft, already aim to profit from the use of public right-of-way. People should be skeptical of using public space for private profit, said Jill Locantore, head of  Denver Streets Partnership, which advocates for better walking, biking and transit. But there's a double standard when it comes to scooters and bikes in a city that dedicates the vast majority of its public space to cars.

"We let people use the public right of way to move and store privately owned objects all the time, and so there's nothing new about this," Locantore said. "City Council is jumping to the conclusion that the problem is being caused by the companies, but the underlying problem is that we haven't allocated public right-of-way in a way that reflects how the public wants to use it."

Creating more space for vehicles other than cars is something the city government has direct control over, said Locantore, who thinks the parking areas will change people's behavior.

From DOTI's perspective, the companies aren't getting the street space for free; they're investing in transit infrastructure that reduces solo driving.

Mayor Michael Hancock has committed to drastically reducing solo driving by 2030, and city data show scooters and bikes are helping to chip away at those goals.

Lyft is investing $25 million in its Denver bike-and-scooter system, company spokesperson Jordan Levine told Denverite. Lime and Lyft will each provide 5,280 free memberships to locals as well, which Levine said amounts to a $10 million investment in moving people without cars.

Sandoval also took aim at the publicly traded companies for what she described as being car-first when Denver is trying to cut down on driving. She questioned the public-private partnership on the grounds that Lyft's bread and butter is driving people around, and that Uber, another car-based company, is an investor in Lime.

Private ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, which add traffic and pollution to city streets according to a University of Colorado Denver study, already have access to Denver's right-of-way for their companies' profits.

The Denver City Council will discuss and vote on the licenses Monday night.

This article has been updated to correct an error in reporting. Uber is not Lime's primary shareholder.

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