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Environmentally Conscious Meets Litter On Wheels?

So it’s come to this – or, rather, it all comes to a head, so many trends all at once.

The sharing economy, environmentally friendly transit and the anti-litter movement all meet. Messily.

News comes this week courtesy of CBS that the emergence of the auto-less trend – think bike sharing (the dockless kind) and the rental scooters that are now gaining momentum – have been drawing some heat.

Yes, those initiatives are popular – and yes, they make commuting ostensibly safer, environmentally friendlier and, some might even argue, fun and healthy. But the programs have proliferated at a pace that has set off alarm bells. As CBS notes, there are 57 programs and counting, and the cities are scrambling to keep up with some unintended fallout.

Welcome to the problem, nascent but growing, of “litter bikes.” Environmentally sound on one hand, precarious on the other. It seems, according to CBS, that people have been leaving the bikes and the scooters pretty much wherever their whims might dictate. Messes and tripping hazards abound. Some stranger examples recounted by the site: Up a tree and by the road and on railroad tracks.

The trend is not exactly new. China is home to “bicycle” graveyards, where oversupply hints at the vagaries of a trend that quickly catches on and then fizzles, at least in some respects. The sharing culture is one that has the power to transform how we live and work and interact. But as The Atlantic documented in May, the field has become crowded, literally. Bikes pile up on streets and on sidewalks and stymie foot (and other) traffic. The corporate culture is marked by its own corpses, too, as many of the startups that piled into the bike sharing space have stopped, well, spinning their wheels. Pictures abound on the internet of the graveyards themselves, where some have remarked on the “beauty” that such debris can produce.

We contend that moving beyond the picturesque, there are troubling trends afoot. Seems the disposable culture just might be shifting its thoughts on what is disposable. Some education seems to be in order in a land where scooters can reach speeds of 15 miles an hour when they are not lying on a sidewalk, and where cities are cities and are crowded.

The issues have landed on U.S. shores as well. They beg the question of what to do in a Wild West of startups where, at the moment, the barriers to entry are low when all a startup needs is a fleet of scooters and bikes to hang out a bike-sharing shingle.

What must be done if what seems to be a trend is exposed as fad? Might the graveyard concept find a home in the U.S., exacerbating the clutter and jamming up traffic in ways ironic, to be sure, and problematic as well?

CBS asked Maggie Grendon with LimeBikes about what education might be needed, and her response was: parking. As in, parking the bikes in spots appropriate (and, we might add, considerate), after all the app-using and bike choosing and cruising is done.

Parking with thoughtfulness comes amid the usual benefits that accrue to the business model. “It’s making movement for short distances more convenient and allowing people to not have to rely on a car to get around,” Grendon said to CBS. “Forty percent of our rides started and ended at other transit stops.”

It’s the dockless option that creates a problem – as in at least one city, San Francisco, there are cease-and-desist programs in place until upstart firms get things under control. Austin, Texas has an ordinance stating that companies must get proper permitting or face fines as high as $200 per scooter or bike that runs afoul. To help salve the wounds of thoughtless riders, stated CBS, some companies promote daily “roundups,” while others are using tech to identify offenders.

Perhaps most soothing might be the revenue sharing programs that some firms are putting in place with their host cities. Maybe not a bad deal, as many firms are crowding into the space. As NBC reported in April, several companies have been jockeying for market share in Dallas alone, where 20,000 bikes (and counting) are lining streets and sidewalks.

Growing pains? Yes, as evidenced by the litter bikes. But the shared economy will continue to have its benefits, even if it takes time to get a handle on the handlebars.

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