The drama started with an armed robbery. And it only got worse from there. The victim was an unnamed man in his 40s. He was outside, on a West Side street, when a stranger approached with a handgun. He struck the victim, injuring him. At the time, it was unclear whether anything was stolen. But the details hardly matter. The point of this story – the reason anyone remembers a random mugging – is the getaway vehicle.
The assailant rode away on a JUMP bike.
Two months ago, this sounded ridiculous. Who would use a 70-pound bicycle, painted fire-engine red, to flee a scene? How did the suspect even use the bike? Didn’t he need a smartphone, a special app, and an approved credit card? Couldn’t the police just track the bike’s GPS?
No, no, and no. A week earlier, the Providence Journal reported that JUMP bikes are “easily broken into.” An unidentified teen explained to reporter Madeleine List how vulnerable the locking mechanism was; a bike could be hacked in minutes. Rumors circulated that a rider could dismantle the onboard computer, so the bikes couldn’t be tracked. There was only one drawback: A hacked JUMP bike doesn’t have power-assist. Otherwise, it was a free – if cumbersome – new bicycle. And because JUMP had expanded so quickly, there were more than 1,000 units to choose from, standing on street corners, just waiting to be stolen.
From there, the ProJo headlines were fast and furious. “Misuse of JUMP bikes a problem in Providence.” “Police see increase in crimes connected to JUMP bikes.” “Teens on JUMP bikes beat, robbed man on Federal Hill.” And finally, on August 16, just a week after the West Side assault: “Mob on bicycles blocks traffic in Providence, assaults people, steals snacks, police say.”
JUMP was already under heavy scrutiny, after its parent company, Uber, unexpectedly raised its rental fee from $2 per 30 minutes to $9, a 350 percent increase that infuriated many subscribers. In the wake of public outcry, Uber lowered the rates to $3 per 30 minutes. This didn’t look good for a company that had received a $400,000 federal grant to install the bikes in the first place.
That wasn’t all. The “dockless” bikes were turning up everywhere, “littering” streets and parks with expensive motorized vehicles. “I have received numerous daily complaints about these bikes… being left on sidewalks, blocking walkways and driveways, and being a hazard for those with mobility issues,” said Michael Correia, Council President Pro Tempore, in a statement. “I have even had complaints of bikes being vandalized by young people. I believe that we need to provide alternate and economical forms of transportation across the city, but I’m concerned that a safety plan or retrieval plan are not in place.”
All of this was bad news, whether you cared about JUMP bikes or not. But that last report – of 100-plus teenagers running rampant in Downcity – was the final nail in the innertube. Local media identified the event as a “Rideout,” a kind of two-wheeled flash-mob organized on social media. One man was reportedly punched in the face. Adolescents reportedly flooded a store and snatched items from shelves. The stories of “hooliganism” were graphic and grotesque. And at the center of it all was that bright, red bicycle. JUMP had been taken for a ride.
On August 22, nearly one year after the bikes hit Providence, JUMP pulled its entire fleet. A much-circulated quote came from Harry Hatfield, a spokesman for Uber: “Safety is at the heart of everything we do, and after acts of vandalism on JUMP bikes we have decided, in partnership with the city, to temporarily remove bikes from operation in Providence.”
On paper, a bike share program is a great idea. The bicycle is small and efficient. They’re cheap, compared to cars. They’re carbon neutral. Most Americans know how to ride a bike. In a dense city like Providence, you can navigate the labyrinthine streets nearly as fast as cars can drive; parking is instantaneous. Providence isn’t that hilly, and with a power
-assisted motor, you can fly up College Hill without breaking a sweat. The electric motor is a dream for riders who may find biking challenging.
And in practice, bike share programs are still a great idea. Customers run errands on borrowed bikes all over the world. Pittsburgh has never canceled its own system, Healthy Ride. Phoenix has never been overrun by an army of Grid Bike thugs. Taiwanese aren’t beaten up by random strangers on YouBikes. So why Providence, a small city with moderate street crime? And why now?
Part of the problem was technical: A bike that can get stolen will get stolen. Once that vulnerability was exposed, JUMP struggled to keep up with thefts and misuse. The safeguards they had relied on – GPS in particular – couldn’t protect the bikes from abuse.
But residents were filing complaints long before any “bike mob.” Much of the misbehavior may stem from the JUMP model itself: Any adult can download the app and start riding, whether they know bike etiquette or not. In theory, this policy democratizes the system. Yet taking an Uber to the airport requires no skill; bicyclists must obey traffic laws. Curiously, Rhode Island does not require a helmet for any cyclist over the age of 15, but a power-assisted JUMP bike can reach speeds of 20 miles per hour. You don’t have to be a physicist to know how deadly that velocity is, especially in Downcity traffic.
JUMP started with a 400 bikes last September, then ballooned its fleet to 1,100 in April. As Providence drivers attempted to adjust to all these new bikes on the road – many of them operated by rookie riders – residents dealt with another problem: the “dockless” system. Riders were free to leave their bikes anywhere within a certain zone. JUMP hires workers to retrieve stray bikes and re-charge them, so they eventually end up neatly displayed at their “hubs”. Riders are also rewarded with a $1 credit when they return their bike to a hub. But this incentive wasn’t enough.
“One of the problems is that, after they’re being used, they’re just being left on someone’s front sidewalk,” Councilman Correia told East Side Monthly. “They’re dumped in the middle of the street. Just left unattended. I believe they need to be brought back to a specific location, like a bike rack.”
Correia was a vocal critic of JUMP Bikes, as well as the Bird and Lime scooters that operate in much the same way. Correia called for a suspension of service at the end of July, before the “bike mob” started making headlines. JUMP, and the City, eventually agreed with him. But Correia remains a supporter of the concept.
“I’m not opposed to the bike-share program at all,” he said. “I think we need to offer alternative forms of transportation. But the policies and procedures need to be tightened up a lot more, to make sure these bikes don’t become a nuisance to the city.”
Indeed, a critical mass of people wants JUMP to work, and it’s often hard to believe that so much fuss has been made over a bicycle. A major JUMP sponsor is Lifespan Health System, which has a vested interest in daily exercise. Following the suspension of service, Lifespan decided to stay its course.
Many concerns remained, of course, and answers were few. After all, JUMP had hiked rates before, shocking its subscribers. Would this happen again, and would it preclude low-income users? Uber is a controversial brand, and management has scrambled to address ride-share safety concerns; would it do the same for amateur bicyclists?
And in the end, should JUMP Bikes take all the blame, or did those fault lines already exist?
“Asking what band-aid solutions an international corporation can offer us is not useful,” wrote Gregory Sankey, in an email. “What problem are we asking them to fix? It is of our city’s creation: public transportation, access, mobility.”
Sankey is well versed in Providence’s bicycle culture: He is director of operations at Recycle-a-Bike, a volunteer-based organization in Olneyville. The facility refurbishes donated bikes, instructs locals in bike maintenance, and provides an open shop. Sankey’s opinions don’t necessarily reflect his organization, but Recycle-a-Bike is arguably the opposite of JUMP: simple, educational, and deeply invested in the community it serves. Much of that community includes young residents from low-income homes – the very demographic spotlit in the “bike mob” headlines.
“Bike shares can be really great ways to get folks active and using bicycles if they weren’t using them before,” said Sankey. “They’re also great for that ‘last mile’ of someone’s trip that public transit couldn’t take them. Drawbacks or problems aren’t inherent in bike share programs, they’re products of design. If bike share programs are affordable, accessible, safe, scalable, and their owners are accountable, then they are likely to be successful.”
He added: “Uber was given $400,000 [in federal money] to provide goods and services to the city of Providence. If our organization and our peers (Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition, Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council) were given even half of that money, we could have given hundreds, if not thousands of Providence residents bicycles that they would be personally responsible for. Not only that, but we could have given them helmets, locks, lights, and instruction on how to fix their own bicycles and how to properly ride their bicycles on the road.”
Perhaps it’s time to switch gears.