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The Future of Bike Sharing - Part 1

Juice Bike Share station. Photo: City of Orlando.

Bike sharing in the U.S. has grown dramatically within the last 8 years. According to Metrobike, over 71,000,000 trips on public bikes have occurred in the U.S.A. since 2008. And further innovations in the technology, operations and business models point to additional growth. They also point to different ways that people will interact with bike sharing in the future.

In this multi-part series, I will look at the innovations and the different system models that are emerging, gain an on-the-ground view from a bike share operator, and solicit the perspective of industry experts. The goal is to gain a better understanding of the phenomenon and direction of bike sharing which is sweeping our streets.

Rapid Growth of Bike Sharing

As noted, bike sharing has grown significantly within the U.S. and the world. And the pace is accelerating as evidenced by the nearby chart.

In the two years since the chart was created, the U.S. public bike fleet has grown to more than 32,000 bikes with over 3,400 stations in 100+ municipalities in the U.S.A. (Source: Metrobike).

Closer to home, since its launch in 2013 more than 900,000 people have used Chicago Divvy bike share. Collectively, Divvy riders have taken over 7.8 million trips all across the city. (Source: CDOT). Considering there are 1.35 million vehicles registered in Chicago (2010), bike sharing is clearly a popular alternative to driving.

The Rise of Flexible Bike Sharing Systems

Chicago's Divvy bike share system uses "intelligent" docking stations and kiosks to manage the fleet. Photo: ZappaWheels.

While the bike sharing footprint continues to grow, it is also evolving rapidly and already entering a third-generation of development and deployment.

Bike shares systems have typically been set up in a hub-spoke arrangement with docking stations and rows of bikes. The stations are located through-out the bike share coverage area to ensure riders have access to a location to check-in and check-out bikes. Riders check-out the bike by interacting with a kiosk located at the docking station. Each night the bike share operator has to "re-balance" the system to ensure that each station has a full complement of bikes available. This typically includes loading bikes in vans and delivering them to different stations. 

These types of arrangements are popular in many cities. According to the USDOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 76 municipalities had dock-based bike sharing systems in April 2016.

However, dock-based systems are expensive; typically they cost $40,000 minimum to purchase and install each docking stations. A significant investment when you consider the number of stations spread over a city's footprint. Part of the cost is driven by the fact that each dock needs to have the "intelligence" to track when a bike has been checked in/out. Also, there is the cost of a kiosk which the rider uses to rent the bike.

Alternatively, since late 2014, a new generation of "Flexible" bike sharing systems have emerged. In this model, the "intelligence" is on the bike and not the docking station. Furthermore, the bike itself is equipped with a lock or lock-box. As a result, the bike can be locked at any location which provides tremendous flexibility for the rider - hence the name flexible bike sharing. ​As a result cities can now deploy less expense docking stations or in some situations no docking stations.

Topeka Bike Share has flexible bike sharing that includes a smart bike equipped with its own lock enabling a rider to park at any designated (red color) rack. Photo: Topeka Library.

Flexible bike share system in Santa Monica, CA. Photo: Global Green

Advantages of Flexible Bike Sharing

The Shared Use Mobility Center (SUMC) is a national leader on shared mobility (bike sharing, car sharing, ride sharing) and recently completed research on flexible bike sharing. I met with Cassie Halls, Project Associate at SUMC to understand what the flexible bike share model means for municipalities. She shared that the advantages are significant:

  1. ​Reduced installation costs for the municipality; in many instances the cost of installation is only 60% of the cost of the traditional model.

  2. Easier scaling of a bike share operation especially in a low-density urban area.

  3. Easier to prioritize street space for bike sharing since the "footprint" is smaller,

For riders, there are also major advantages with flexible bike sharing. First there is no need to interact with a kiosk. Riders instead can use a phone to interact directly with the bike to access and unlock it for use.

​Also it's easier to park the bike Currently, riders need to find a station with an empty dock to check-in the bike. This can be difficult especially In popular locations such as near a train stations. Many bike share systems provide phone apps to help riders find an open station but there may be none available. With flexible bike sharing, basic racks instead of sophisticated docking stations make it easier and less expensive to create more places for parking the bike. It's conceivable any location could become a place to park the bike.

Implications of Flexible Bike Sharing.

As part of their research, ​SUMC wanted to understand the implications of flexible bike sharing. ​They interviewed bike share operators in multiple cities and evaluated bike share systems across five main issues: 1.) business models 2) equity program and access 3) scaling programs 4) funding pathways and 5) transit payment integration. During the interviews many municipalities said they weren't able to offer they types of systems in Chicago or New York, but rather, needed something different.

Overall, the research revealed the following:

  1. Flexible bike sharing is growing rapidly and on the rise (29 municipalities have now implemented flexible bike sharing systems)

  2. Small and mid-sized cities are leading bike share innovation (90% of the cities where flexible bike share is being tested are under 500K people )

  3. Bigger impacts are possible with flexible bike sharing - the cost makes it feasible for all communities thereby having the potential to address bike equity issues

Case Study: Flexible Bike Sharing in Albuquerque

Albuquerque is a good example. The city wanted to spend a modest $50K on a pilot bike share to gauge interest before trying to scale the system. Using the flexible bike share model they were able to offer a 50 bicycle pilot. As part of the pilot, the initial 1.5 hours are free to riders with a cost of $3/hour afterwards. As a result, riders can keep the bikes longer and don't have the hassle of finding a bike station after 1/2 hour of riding. The entire process of renting the bike is managed from the rider's cell phone instead of a station kiosk.

After launching the pilot, the city immediately experienced a ground-swell of support and attracted numerous sponsors. The additional financial resources can help to scale the system over time. In effect, the pilot was a crowd-funded launch of a bike share. The low initial cost of the flexible bike share model made this possible. ​

The City of Albuquerque uses a Zagster bike for bike sharing; note the lockbox on the rear bike rack which the rider unlocks with a code from their mobile phone. Photo: Zagster.

Continued Innovation in Bike Sharing

Overall, the flexible model has accelerated the growth of bike sharing by allowing small and mid-sized municipalities to participate. To be clear, the flexible bike share model is not for every metropolitan area. Rather it is a new model that has emerged to meet the diverse market needs.

And some municipalities have chosen a hybrid approach.. For instance, in the article A Behind the Scenes Look at Bike Sharing, I reviewed the Pittsburgh Bike Share system which supports both dock and dock-less bike sharing.

And the innovation with flexible bike sharing continues. Portland's bike share system, BIKETOWN is using flexible bike sharing to address the system re-balancing issue. Portland is piloting the use of real-time GPS data and financial incentives to reduce these costs. Riders earn a $1 account credit each time they take a bike that’s been locked at a public bike rack back to a BIKETOWN station.

In the next segment of this series, I will meet with the Pittsburgh team to understand what they have learned two years into operations.

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