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Shared bikes from LimeBike, Spin, and Ofo sped onto Seattle streets in record time, thanks in part to the city’s new approach to engaging with private companies. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) got the green light to launch a pilot bike-share program in May of 2017. By July, bright orange and green shared bicycles hit the streets, a two-and-a-half month turnaround that SDOT’s Kyle Rowe calls “lightning speed in government time.”

Kyle Rowe oversees SDOT’s bike-share permit program. (Photo via SDOT)

So how did Rowe and his team pull it off? They used a new permitting system that allows SDOT to circumvent the traditional Request For Proposals (RFP) process, which can take years. The permitting program has allowed companies like Car2Go, ReachNow, Spin, LimeBike, and Ofo to deploy their services in Seattle in record time — and it’s getting national attention.

GeekWire caught up with Rowe, who oversees the bike-share permit program at SDOT, just after he presented the novel process at a conference in Montreal. “Everyone else has an RFP process and they were all jealous,” he said via phone.

Previously: Testing the new breed of bike sharing: We pitted Spin vs. LimeBike on the streets of Seattle

The system that inspired envy in Rowe’s peers works like this: Private companies, like Spin, approach the city with an idea that can function as a consumer business while also meeting a goal of the public agency. The department and company or companies involved then work together to craft a set of regulations that work for both parties. The company creates a compliant service, earns a permit, and launches without going through the lengthy proposals, contract negotiations, and funding disputes associated with an RFP process.

SDOT Director Scott Kubly. (SDOT Photo)

“One of the things that we’re starting to realize is for some service types, it may actually make more sense for the city to permit something than it is to go out and procure it,” said SDOT Director Scott Kubly. “You could think about bike sharing, for example. A city could spend a year and a half to two years going through the procurement process, issuing the RFP, evaluating the RFP, negotiating the contract and launching the service, that can take easily two years if you’re moving quickly. But when you have a willing private sector partner that can help you meet your public policy goals and they still have a private business model that works as a consumer service?”

That’s a bike of a different color.

Of course, there are risks in letting companies take such an active role in setting their own regulations. The deluge of neon bikes around Seattle — likely many more than required to meet actual demand — is evidence that the limits for those programs might have been set too high.

The city has a checkered history rolling out new technologies. The new dockless bike-sharing services replace the failed Pronto program, which launched as a nonprofit after going through a traditional RFP process, and was eventually bailed out by the city. Pronto became a public-private partnership that cost the city millions before it was shut down in January, after immersing Kubly in an ethics controversy.

SDOT says it learned valuable lessons from Pronto and believes the benefits of speed make the collaborative permitting approach to regulating these programs worthwhile, particularly when engaging with the fast-moving technology industry.

SDOT’s industry-friendly program is also in sharp contrast with other arms of the city government. The Seattle City Council has been aggressive in regulating Uber and Lyft, seeking to limit their reach in the city and provide a path for drivers to unionize, over objections from the ride-hailing companies.

The origin story for SDOT’s permit process dates back to the Seattle launch of Car2Go in 2013. The city created its first permit for Car2Go-parent Daimler and later expanded the program to make room for competitors, like BMW’s ReachNow.

Car2go launched in Seattle in 2013. (GeekWire Photo)

“That was the exact same process, more or less, at that time,” Rowe said. “We just weren’t getting as many calls from startups to offer new services in Seattle. We didn’t think that this would be a model that we would expand on so much but it turns out it is.”

Permitting allows SDOT to be more nimble and adaptive to changing technologies than traditional RFPs. That’s one of the goals of SDOT’s New Mobility Playbook, an outline of the agency’s plans to incorporate innovative technology into Seattle’s transportation network.

The Playbook details how SDOT will respond to new technologies, like autonomous vehicles, sensors on traffic lights, transportation networks and ridesharing, and others, while working toward sustainability and equity goals.

“We don’t know all of the different things that we could be doing with our right of way, so we really want all of the people that are out there trying to build new products, that help transportation systems operate more efficiently, to think about Seattle as the place where they want to come in and test their product,” Kubly said.

SDOT is already working on other ways to leverage its unique permitting process to encourage innovators to deploy their products in Seattle. The department has written a permit for electric vehicle (EV) charging permits and received more than 60 applications from private companies.

Evan Corey oversees SDOT’s electric vehicle charging permits. (SDOT Photo)

“The second we rolled it out we got interest from both of the ride share companies, Uber and Lyft, as well as ReachNow on the car sharing side, to really think about electric vehicle deployment in their services,” said Evan Corey, who manages the EV charger program. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you see some initiatives in the near future where they’re really making electric vehicles part of their service offerings.”.

SDOT is also considering creating permits for autonomous vehicle technology and sensors at traffic lights. We asked Kubly whether the program could be expanded to other government agencies, beyond transportation.

“There’s all sorts of different avenues that we can open up to this type of model that go beyond EV charging and go beyond bike sharing,” he said, adding later, “any service where there’s a public need, but also a private market, is an opportunity to think about this permitting versus procurement.”

SDOT rolled out its New Mobility Playbook on Sept. 6 and plans to update it every six months to “reflect the dynamic nature of new mobility services and the rapid changes in transportation technology.”

“It’s founded in what the New Mobility Playbook says about us being open to innovation and wanting Seattle to be a testing ground for new technologies,” said Rowe. “Finding the permit process to allow us to do this, it was a step in getting that done.”

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