Loitering Objects

Why are objects allowed to remain in public spaces where people aren’t?

Lingering with a sense of abandonment, dockless bikes and scooters speckle the cityscape. Using a combination of GPS, 3G, and solar panels, they can be tracked and thus left anywhere. When seen on the street, they seem to show all the expected signs of wear and are usually found askew, akin to a bike in the driveway of a family home or propped up in the hallway of a commuter. This familiarity implies that they belong to a particular person. But these objects appear to wait around for nobody, or for their end-of-day collection, when they will be rounded up, charged, and dropped somewhere new. They seem vaguely radical: They challenge our preconceptions of private ownership but only by seeming abandoned; they interrupt our expectations of urban planning by obstructing our path through the street. As pastimes they feel intuitively public and communal, but what they signify, ultimately, is privatization.

Citymapper describes them as “floating transportation.” “Floating” is a slinky concept that evokes images of passing clouds, skirt hems, and dandelions, which drift in constant motion because they are so delicate. Applied to bikes, it leads users to think of the frictionless motion of flying cars and hoverboards that seamlessly glide through the air. In practice, dockless bikes litter neighborhoods. Their ubiquity is both their selling point — the motto of Ofo, one of the larger Chinese dockless bike distributors, is “anytime, anywhere, a bike to ride” — and their biggest cause for critique. In London they have been condemned by local authorities as a “yellow plague,” spreading from street to street. Across China, from Shanghai to Xiamen, mountains of dockless bikes accumulate on roadsides, eventually cleared by the thousands into “graveyards” within city suburbs.

Dockless bikes and scooters challenge our preconceptions of private ownership but only by seeming abandoned

This excess shows the prioritization of growth over demand, which has clogged pavements, displaced pedestrians, and endangered those with mobility impairments. What the bikes do is loiter. People are said to “loiter” when they have no place to be, dawdling indefinitely without a designated space to occupy, facing harassment and arrest by those who use the term pejoratively. Loitering bikes take up the spaces people are denied, and shout “unlock me or I will call the police” when mishandled. Rather than opening up public space, as their marketers claim, they claim and crowd and insidiously shape it. They can loiter where people cannot.

Loitering laws purport to afford police greater control to either prevent or pre-emptively defuse criminal activity. They claim to disperse “disruptive” behavior but serve to displace oppressed groups in public spaces. Reviewing the loitering case City of Chicago v. Morales, law professor Andrew D. Leipold put it this way: “The prohibited conduct is often described in a way that correlates to the behavior of the poor and the dispossessed, making much of their public behavior subject to police oversight.” This translates to looking the wrong way instead of doing the wrong thing, a conception that has affected sex workers, ethnic minorities, and the homeless, who quite often have nowhere to “move along” to.

For the victims of loitering laws, remaining in one place, under the public eye, can be a radical act. In Loitering Is Delightful, the poet and professor Ross Gay discusses the radical possibilities of “dawdling,” “moseying,” and “meandering.” Assembled from round vowels and protracted suffixes, these words loll in your mouth and take time to pronounce, mirroring their implications of unproductivity. The act of loitering, he writes, “leads to being, even if only temporarily, nonconsumptive, and this is a crime in America.” What Gay seems to suggest is that without loitering, every social engagement must be confined to the realm of private property or instantiated by some kind of purchase. The loitering of dockless bikes represents the opposite: the encroaching possibility of consumption even in spaces where none was assumed.

These companies exploit our positive conceptions of state resources, as well as our sentimental attachments to private property. As children, a bike is not just a toy; it is a glimpse into the possibility of independence and exploration. Over time, these associations mature into nostalgia and we come to think of cycling as a means to a healthy lifestyle, an avenue to green living or an exciting hobby. Dockless bikes benefit from these affiliations but also capitalize off the utopianism implicit in public-run infrastructure. Although they are not publicly run, they are “shared,” and they claim to be for all.

By “going dockless,” we are supposed to engage differently with cities. Toby Sun, co-founder of Lime, said that his company’s purpose is to “reimagine urban lives through the wonder of mobility.” In an essay for Real Life, David Banks discusses how bike sharing companies appropriate countercultural ideas to market their products as unequivocal social goods. Lime is said to be inspired by the flimsy anti-consumerism of Burning Man’s gift-economy; they co-opt the rhetoric of free movement, presenting their products as enablers of human connections and novel environmental interactions.

People are said to “loiter” when they have no place to be, dawdling indefinitely without a designated space to occupy, facing harassment and arrest

Ironically, this mirrors Ross Gay’s comprehension of “meandering,” and more broadly, reflects the Situationists’ idea of a dérive — aimlessly making one’s way through public space, while acknowledging how this space attempts to push and pull one in particular directions. But Lime enforces rather than challenges the top-down structures of urban planning: The company represents a transient form of privatization, where each ride is tracked, billed, and covertly commodified through the extraction of user data, guiding us toward further consumption while claiming to do the opposite.

Many companies market their products as solutions to broader issues of urbanization. Sun and Brad Bao, his co-founder, said they wanted Lime to make “urban living more livable” by easing congestion and reducing air pollution, promoting their products as a shortcut to environmental solutions in lieu of much-needed systemic change.

Dockless transportation companies often claim to operate in the public interest by providing a viable alternative to existing rail and bus systems, while also connecting parts of cities that lack transport links. In reality, these products fall into broader austerity narratives, where the private sector fills in holes made by government cuts. Business-run transportation tends to inflate prices and compromise efficiency, while taking these services out of the hands of democratic scrutiny and fracturing once organized labor forces.

The loitering of dockless bikes represents the opposite: the encroaching possibility of consumption even in spaces where none was assumed

User data from dockless transportation companies is already shaping the development of a number of American cities: In 2018, South Bend, Indiana, used data from rides to determine drop-off and pickup areas for dockless bikes. In Seattle, rider data will be used to determine the placement of new bike lanes, parking areas, and corrals. The idea that cities are becoming more cycle friendly is hopeful, exciting even. But these changes are often less for the benefit of residents than for advertisers. According to Forbes, for corporations like Alibaba and Tencent, dockless transportation companies provide the opportunity to target users “with highly relevant advertising that is less likely to be seen as intrusive.” Here, we see dockless companies peddling two distinct products: bikes for the people, and data for the investors.

The aesthetic of public good allows companies to compete with state-run resources in the free market, shirking the vapid associations of Silicon Valley while perpetuating the same exploitative business models of companies like Uber and Lyft. Neither delivering on the promise of reliable infrastructure, nor the idealism of unconstrained movement, dockless bikes seem as toxic in motion as they are when idle.

Loitering becomes the de facto state of dockless bikes when they are underused. In the past year, a number of dockless transport companies have packed up and left the U.K.; first there was Ofo and oBike, followed by Urbo, and now we are in the era of Jump and Lime. Explanations for these withdrawals have been varied — some have claimed that it was due to overexpansion and limited trialing, while others have cited their lack of co-operation with local councils. A more obvious and damning explanation is that they are simply unwanted or not respected. Mobike said their decision to leave Manchester was a response to “unsustainable losses” from vandalism and theft — something that has already forced bikeshare companies out of 200 cities worldwide. While coverage of these issues have tended to treat “vandalism” and “theft” as synonymous, they are really gesturing toward two separate issues.

For something to be worth stealing, it must have some kind of value. In the case of dockless bikes, their worth may lie outside their intended use, realized in the sum of their expensive parts. Vandalism, on the other hand, implies that people find them utterly useless. One type of vandalism is the intentional disfiguring or destruction of these bikes, which have been set alight in Sheffield, thrown into the sea in San Diego, and refashioned into art installations in Melbourne. At the same time, accounts like @DocklessBikeFails and @Bikesharingnightmares reveal a developing culture of ridicule: Photos show bikes shoved up trees, stuffed into portable toilets and mangled on the side of the highway. These acts of vandalism, and the collective rejection implied by their compilation, challenge the idea that things should be afforded rights that people are denied.

When things — companies and objects — are prioritized in cities, people are defined relationally as consumers or loiterers instead of citizens. Ironically, when fighting back against dockless bikes and their intrusions on public environments, people are physically reshaping these spaces in accordance with their desires and needs. Perhaps the emancipatory potential of dockless bikes is sooner found in their rubbishing than in their actual use.

Dolly Church is a London-based writer and editor. She writes about urban living, culture and technology, and is currently working on a potato salad.