Bike Share: The Dawn of the Smartbike (and the Death of Dock-Blocking)

A Portland bike share user parks his smartbike, made by Social Bicycles, at a public bike rack. Photo courtesy of Biketown.

During the fall of 2013, I was working long hours with my team at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) to put the finishing touches on a book about bike share that, at the time, was the most comprehensive guide to building better bike share systems. Our hard work resulted in The Bike-Share Planning Guide, which was published by ITDP in 2013 and has had over 100,000 downloads since. The books was the first to link aspects of bike share planning — like station density, bikes per capita, and system area — to a bike share system’s actual performance. We determined that key metrics like system usage, market penetration, and operations costs are critical clues to a system’s health and performance.

In 2013, many cities were excited to implement bike share systems, but either out of misguided frugality or an attempt to limit the risk of failure, most cities only budgeted for undersized systems, increasing the chances of the system’s failure. What we encouraged, and what the data proves, is that undersized systems cannot provide convenient and reliable mobility. Our book gave city planners the empirical data they needed to justify bigger, denser, and better bike share systems that could thrive.

After finalizing the book, I flew to San Francisco to launch it to a small gathering of fellow transport experts at a new, and then still obscure conference called the Shared Use Mobility Summit (which now draws hundreds of attendees from around the world). My team and I were confident int he work and thrilled to share it with the public in hopes it would markedly improve bike share systems around the world.

At the conference, I met a shaggy-haired ex-transportation planner named Ryan Rzepecki, who had even bigger goals for improving bike share globally. His company, Social Bicycles, was developing a new type of bike share system with bikes that could be locked to any public bike rack or street sign, had real-time GPS to track the bicycles’ locations, and, most importantly, users were not limited to beginning and ending their trips at docking stations. He’d designed a model to solve the biggest problems with bike share: reliable dock availability, expensive equipment, and inefficient operations. For a moment I almost laughed because I had literally just written the book on bike share and I knew, as everyone else did, that bike share bikes required docking points…unless they didn’t.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Ryan’s innovative new smartbike had the potential to take the bike share industry to a new level of functionality, efficiency, and scale. I hadn’t even gotten a print copy of the Bike Share Planning Guide before realizing it was already out of date.

No One Likes Getting Dockblocked

Ironically, as I researched bike share’s best practices from ITDP’s office in Washington DC, I’d given up riding bike share to work, despite having stations within a block of my home and office. It seemed like, more often than not, there was either no bike at the station near my house or no dock near my office — usually both. Sometimes, I’d ride to my office to find no available docks, forcing me to ride half way back home to leave the bike at nearest open dock and then walk many blocks. I’d arrive late to the office frustrated by a 45 minutes commute that should have only take 15 minutes at most.

Redistributing bike share bikes in Montreal with a flatbed trailer to avoid over-capacity stations. Photo: BeyondDC onFlickr.

These “dockblocking” experiences are maddening, even for someone like me, and I love bike share. As a transportation researcher I also know that reliability is a key factor in any user’s modal choice. People will avoid riding a bus to work if 25% of the time that bus doesn’t arrive or doesn’t stop near their destination and the same goes for bike share. Yet even the world’s most established bike share systems offer a comparably poor level of service at peak hours: users in 7 different new York City neighborhoods have a 25% or higher chance of finding a full station at peak hour. While bike share has, for the most part, been a major success and done a great deal to improve mobility within cities, many of us believed it could perform much better. We wanted bike share to be reliable, not just for a weekend trip to the cafe, but as a standard commuting option anywhere in a city at peak hours when it’s needed most, by the most people.

Dock-Dependent Bike Share: Higher Costs, Fewer Options

As the Guide was released, bike share began making headlines around the world as major systems neared financial insolvency. Many of these crises can be attributed to both the inherent challenges of operating an entirely new transit industry and terrible luck like flood damage and long, cold winters. The crises were exacerbated by the high costs of bike share infrastructure and costly ongoing operations.

https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/22/business/bankruptcy-case-lifts-curtain-on-bike-share-operator.html

Traditional dock-dependent bike share systems are expensive — the average cost for a system like New York City’s is over $5200 per bike (inclusive of dock costs). These high costs are a major contributor to undersized bike share systems around the world. With inadequate station density, small service areas, and/or fewer bikes per capita than empirical data recommends, many bike share systems have poorly balanced systems and incomplete system coverage. For example, despite it’s popularity, NYC’s system only covers a relatively small portion of the city, leaving out many low-income neighborhoods. According to the New York City Department of Transportation covering all of the five boroughs would require an investment of as many as 80,000 bikes.

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/05/nyregion/citi-bike-may-need-public-funding-to-reach-more-new-yorkers.html

Further, because dock-dependent systems are rendered useless when stations are empty or full, costly and inefficient fleets of vans must continuously operate to redistribute bikes. While the operations for these systems have improved tremendously, especially with the entry of highly skilled and well-capitalized companies like Motivate, dock dependent infrastructure still falls short of providing the next level of scale, reliability, inclusivity, and service quality.

2015: Smartbikes Dominate Bike Share

A woman rides a Social Bicycles Breeze smartbike, in Santa Monica, CA.

If you combine my graduate studies at UC Berkeley and my tenure at ITDP, I’ve spent nearly a decade researching, analyzing, planning, and consulting on bike share systems on five continents. Yet the first bike share system to pique my interest since Velib in Paris, was Hamilton, Ontario — a town I’d never heard of until I learned that it would get the first large-scale, city-wide smartbike system in the world.

Hamilton, Ontario, 2015: The world’s first full-scale, citywide smartbike system. Photo & article: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/hamilton-bike-share-to-launch-in-march-2015-1.2772849

In March of 2015, Social Bicycles launched 750 smartbikes and rolled out practices and technologies never seen in a system of this magnitude. Its service area is defined by a large geo-fence around the city and the stations comprised of 100 smaller geo-fenced areas. Users park bikes at stations or, for a $1 fee, they lock them anywhere within the city’s service area. On the mobile app, users can see bikes parked outside of station geo-fences and receive a $0.67 credit on their account for returning these “out of hub” bikes to a geo-fenced station.

The first full-scale implementation of a large smartbike system in Hamilton, Ontario was established in 2015. This screenshot of the station area shows the extents of the system geofence as well as stations and out of hub bicycles.

More perks include the ability to reserve bikes in advance from the mobile app and syncing any RFID card — a transit pass or security card — to their account allowing them to unlock the bike with a quick tap. Hamilton’s city planners also receive reams of valuable data about where and how people ride bikes in the city, informing future bicycle infrastructure plans.

Heatmap of riders’ aggregated GPS-logged trip data. This invaluable information helps city planners improve bicycle infrastructure more effectively.

Finally, operational potential for this technology seemed boundless: by using virtual geo-fences to mark stations and incentives to help balance stations, system operators can move stations, influence user behavior, and balance its system with the mere click of a mouse.

Crossing the Tilikum bridge in Portland, OR on Social Bicycles smartbikes. Photo courtesy of Biketown.

It was in Portland, Oregon — America’s capital of city cycling — during the summer of 2016, that Social Bicycle’s smartbike technology truly arrived and changed the bike share landscape. Portland installed 1,000 Social Bicycles smartbikes across the city. The city now has a bike share program with features that any New Yorker or Parisian bike share user could only dream of: the ability to park a bike anywhere, reserve bikes in advance, tap a transit pass to unlock a bike, and, best of all, no more dockblocking. The system was robust enough to attract Nike — one of the most brand-conscious companies in the world — as a system sponsor and the City now collects valuable data to continue improving its infrastructure. All this came at less than half the capital cost of the decade-old, dock-dependent models — with lower estimated operating costs to boot.

A recent study by NACTO shows that by 2015, smartbikes were the dominant model of new bike share bikes implemented around the US. Credit: http://nacto.org/bike-share-statistics-2016/

In fact, recent report from NACTO shows that as of 2015, smartbikes were the dominant model of new bike share bikes implemented around the US. Further, given the explosive growth of similar models in Asia, it is safe to say smartbikes also became the dominant model globally.

More Changes Ahead for Bike Share and Mobility

Over the last ten years, my personal goal was to help perfect and grow the bike share systems around the world. I’ve come to believe that bike share’s advancement to become a more reliable, inclusive, and effective mode of transport in our cities necessarily depends on the smartbike model. So in 2016 I decided to leave ITDP and join the Social Bicycles team to work explicitly toward that end. At the time I joined Social Bicycles, they had launched over 30 smartbike systems in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia, and are expanding rapidly. It has proven to be a fascinating moment to make a move to a dynamic, industry-leading, quickly growing, and technology-driven bike share company.

With the advent of smartbike technology, 2016 turned out to be a watershed year for the bike share industry. Now we find ourselves at another turning point. Hundreds of millions of dollars were recently invested into several Chinese smartbike companies to expand very low-cost, self-locking, and stationless systems into North American and European markets. The bikes, which are available only to smartphone users, do not lock to racks or street signs and can be dropped anywhere. While density and flexibility remain key to any successful bike share program, in China bikes are piling up in the streets and safety, orderliness of public space, and the quality of the user experience are all in question.

A pile of discarded inexpensive bikeshare bikes in a city park in China. Photo: Silent Hill/ImagineChina, http://mashable.france24.com/monde/20170119-chine-shenzhen-velos-libre-service-vandalisme

The question is now, how will US and European cities take advantage of this new technology far lower costs, enhanced user experiences, bigger systems, and overall better mobility while also avoiding the issues that have plagued the Chinese systems? I’ll explore the needed changes in bikeshare buisness models and public policy in my next post.

About the Author: Colin K. Hughes is an urban planner and cycling expert who has worked with the Backroads Cycling, the Asian Development Bank, the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, and Social Bicycles on aspects of urban cycling, cycling tourism, and bike sharing in over 30 countries.