Bike Sharing's Upgrade Problem

How do bike share systems keep two-wheel fleets operable and available when needed? Relying on IT will put these programs at the same risk of sudden obsolescence you worry about when upgrading a phone.
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Barcelona' Bicing bike share program, an early IT-based system, debuted in March 2007. (PHOTO: MARC HERMAN)

Barcelona' Bicing bike share program, an early IT-based system, debuted in March 2007. (PHOTO: MARC HERMAN)

The technology behind New York's two day-old bike sharing program is already outdated. Is that a problem?

A bike share initiative in the country's largest city adds a note of legitimacy to a once-crunchier, Portlandier idea (if it can make it there, it'll make it ... etc). And the bikes themselves remain century-old technology, the basic design of which hasn't been improved on in awhile.

But bike share architects haven't solved a key headache of bicycle travel: building an affordable, reliable, easy-to-use lock. How do bike share systems keep the two-wheel fleets intact, operable, and available when needed?

New York's Citi Bike—and the whole industry—is betting on information technology to do so. That has exposed these complex, expensive, semi-public systems to the same risk of sudden obsolescence you worry about when upgrading your phone.

IT's role in the success of bike sharing means the programs behave like municipal technology initiatives as much as transportation initiatives.

A study published late last year by the Mineta Transportation Institute looked at this "bike share 2.0, 3.0, 4.0" problem. It classified bike sharing programs into four types. The first two were variations on a simple hand-off scheme. A government or NGO would buy a fleet of bikes and park them unlocked around a city. Some were painted a distinct color to identify them as part of the program. The user would just hop on and ride away, then leave the bike at the destination, where the next person would hop on.

These plans, Mineta's report found, didn't work. The bikes got stolen and broken, tires popped, no one knew where the bikes were, and the fleet eventually dwindled.

Those programs began in the early '90s and their failure didn't encourage many cities to copy them. The change came with IT technology, which allowed for smart docking stations. According to the study, at most four programs debuted in Canada and the U.S. each year for the decade and a half between 1994 and 2009. Then came better, cheaper smart station tech. Last year, 18 programs were in the planning stages and 17 more were implemented. The smart bike schemes were a hit. Of the eight bike share programs that have folded in the U.S. since the '90s, only one was a modern IT-driven system.

Here's the problem: IT's role in the success of bike sharing means the programs behave like municipal technology initiatives as much as transportation initiatives. The key question, which it's still too early to answer, is what a bike share system should look like.

New York's brand-new Citi Bike is a network of wired bike racks. Users unlock a bike either by inserting a key (subscribers, who pay $95/year plus tax) or entering a passcode (daily or weekly users, who pay $10 and $25 by credit card). The user returns the bike to a station at the destination. A companion smartphone app can show the user which stations have bikes, and suggest drop-off points.

New York commissioned the system in 2011, when virtually all bike share programs looked likely to run in this manner. That's no longer true. A number of companies claim to have eliminated the need for docking stations, allowing the user to park a shared, public bike in a normal rack or against a pole, like you would your private bicycle.

Typically those systems require the user to have a smartphone. The user texts a request to the bike share system. The system confirms the subscriber and pings back a signal directly to a lockbox on the bike, which opens, allowing the user to pedal away. The pricing structure for "dockless" systems provides incentives to users to leave the bikes in places where the most people want them. From the Mineta report:

Social Bicycles (SoBi), for example, has outfitted its bicycles with a solar-powered, GPS-enabled lockbox, eliminating the need for a docking station, but the lockbox concept has not yet been implemented. User incentives and disincentives both encourage dynamic self-rebalancing. For example, users who lock a bike outside of designated hub areas incur a fee, while those who return the bicycle to a high-demand location receive a credit.

Across the river from New York, the station-less model is reportedly under consideration in Hoboken, New Jersey, and larger cities including Phoenix and Las Vegas.

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