Atlantic Cities

The Awkward Ethics of Sharing

The Awkward Ethics of Sharing
Flickr/Mr. T in DC

A guy I know in Washington, D.C. (OK, he’s my husband) recently had a rather unpleasant experience with a fellow bike-share commuter, and we’ve been talking about the rules of engagement within sharing services ever since.

If you use a bike-share system in any city where demand sometimes outstrips supply, you have probably been in this moment: staring at someone else, who is staring at you, while you both eye the same and sole bike left in a docking station. (A corollary encounter: you and your adversary are fast cycling toward the last remaining docking spot in an otherwise full station.)

In this particular case, I should share a few more pieces of context. The other guy – we’ll call him Dwight Schrute – got there first. He moved for the last bike. Then – what fortune! – another rider pulled up with a second bike. My husband approached it. In the same instant, Dwight was discovering the first bike was broken and could not be undocked. He pressed the service call button (good etiquette), then made eye contact with my husband and lunged for the second bike (questionable etiquette).

Not-so-nice language was spoken on both sides. Dwight invoked the one word verboten in any sharing network: "mine."

In the end, my husband watched him ride away and walked to work. On his way, though, he called Capital Bikeshare to log his discovery: an entitled bike snatcher last seen at 18th and Bell streets in Crystal City. Because, you know, we can’t just have jerks who look like Dwight Schrute riding around town flouting self-evident social norms. That’s just not the spirit of the thing.

The scenario was admittedly ambiguous (sure, maybe the first guy on the scene has a legitimate claim to the first functioning bike). But you make that point politely, right? Which is to say: What do you do in a sharing network with the people who are, umm, not very good at sharing?

•       •       •       •       •

Before Gabe Klein became the transportation commissioner in Chicago (where they just launched bike-share this summer), he had the same job in D.C. in the early days of Capital Bikeshare, and years before that he worked at Zipcar. And so he has spent some time thinking about this question. He actually considered at one point starting a point-to-point car-sharing company where members would be given a "karma score" rating them on their behavior relative to the rest of the community.

You’d never implement such a thing at Avis (who cares who drove that hatchback before you?). But bike-sharing, and certain kinds of car-sharing, are different by design. You’re not just a serial user of a commercial service; your use of it eternally depends on other people. If I lock that bike up at my office, you can’t use it. If you damage a bike but stay mum about it, I may ride off on a flat tire. If you dart ahead of me to grab that last dock spot, my entire morning now sucks.

Chances are we’ll bump into each other again next week. And won’t that be awkward.

The central ethos is built into the name. "The whole point of it is it’s bike share, it’s not bike rental," says Kim Reynolds, the office and administrative manager in Washington for Alta Bicycle Share, which operates Capital Bikeshare. In Chicago, the network is called Divvy, which literally means "to divide and share." In Minneapolis and St. Paul, their system is called Nice Ride, a play on the notion that bike-share requires a certain quality that Minnesotans in particular possess.

Divvy, Klein figures, doesn’t need the kind of karma score he once had in mind for cars. Bad behavior is technically harder to achieve on a bike. You can’t leave trash in it. The bikes themselves are relatively difficult to damage. And penalties for hogging them are built into the price structure: So you want to take that bike and lock it up outside your office all day? That’s fine. You’ll pay $75 or so in most cities for the right. (Here’s how nice they are in Minnesota: If you do this without understanding the system with Nice Ride, customer service will call you up, gently explain they want their bike back, forgive you, and refund the charge the first time.)

The thorniest questions with bike-share mostly come down to face-to-face etiquette in those situations where there are more bikers than bikes, or more bikes than places to park them.

"I've been in that situation," Klein says. "What I've seen mostly is people saying, 'No, no you take it.' 'No no, you take it.' Granted, that's Chicago." He means, not Washington. "And I've got to be honest, people here – unless they're behind the wheel – they're generally nicer.”

(I don’t have scientific evidence of this, but I'm also going to guess the dynamic is a little different in New York.)

Since I started asking around, I’ve actually encountered a lot of people who've been in one of these awkward situations (none of them, though, are in Minnesota; says Nice Ride marketing director Anthony Ongaro: "I can't say that we get a lot of reports of people – or really any reports of people – arriving to a station at the same time and having to fight over a bike.")

My general sense is that the moment always comes down to tone.

Questions are nice: I'm really sorry, but I've been looking for a bike all morning and I'm late to work, do you mind if I take this one?

Declaratives are not: I'm going to go ahead and take this.

Nice: This bike is broken, I'd appreciate if I could take that one.

Not: THAT BIKE IS MINE.

•       •       •       •       •

But what about policing the people who chose poorly?

"We don't have a CaBi code of conduct that says if you're not pleasant, you won't get to use the service, even though that would be inherent in sharing," says Kim Lucas, the bicycle program specialist in the D.C. Department of Transportation. Who, by the way, has also experienced one of these encounters.

She laughingly recalls that she lived in a co-op in grad school where they had such a thing as "cooperativity." If you weren’t cooperative, you could get kicked out or fined. Lacking cooperativity in general was a thing that could be punished. It's hard, though, to pull that off in just about any other context.

CaBi couldn't actually do much about the suspected serial jerk in Crystal City. But there's always one other recourse: Reynolds says she more often sees members grouse about each other on social media.

There is also the slightly more optimistic hope that people who weren't particularly good at sharing anything before – bus seats, public parks, parking lots, etc. – may now be forced to grasp the concept for the first time on a bike.

Top image courtesy of Flickr user Mr. T in DC.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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