Bike share programs momentum: where will it take us?

When people hear that I’m a bicycle consultant, the first thing they tell me is about their trip to Paris, exploring the entire city on a Vélib bike or about how they used Capital Bikeshare to get to a meeting in DC. It’s rare to meet someone today who has not heard of, seen, or used bike sharing.

It’s no wonder! There are now more than 300 bicycle-sharing systems with nearly a quarter million bikes in operation around the planet. And the numbers are exploding.

Large municipalities run most of these systems, but smaller cities, universities and corporations are busy planning and implementing bike share programs of their own. And it’s not just those crazy Europeans. Bike share is a global phenomenon with large new systems popping up across the US. Look here for more detail.

Bike share tends to fall into one of three categories: free systems, station-based systems, and mobile systems. Each has its benefits, drawbacks and place in the world. But the mobile systems are destined to take bike share to an entirely new level.

Free Bike Share Systems

The oldest system of bike share is quite simple. Make bikes available, free of charge, and people will use them.

The most famous of these systems is the now-defunct Amsterdam White Bike program. While extremely popular, the system fell apart. Without any form of security, the bike fleets were quickly depleted by theft, damage, and loss.

This system may not work well in public spaces, but it does work in private, more secure settings. Google, Facebook, and Burning Man, to name just a few, all have free bike share programs that are wildly successful.

Station-Based Bike Share

This is the system most of us know. Stations with interactive kiosks and docks of bikes, situated within a short distance of each other, usually in densely populated areas.

You’ve likely seen or experienced these systems in Washington DC, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis, Barcelona, Paris, London or in hundreds of other cities around the world.

These systems use a combination of robust, user-friendly bikes with high technology checkout systems including solar power, web interfaces, and credit card transactions. They’re easy and fun to use, especially in areas with lots of bikes and stations. These systems cost a lot of money up front, but for users the only real downside is when your desired station is out of bikes or the docks are too full for you to leave your bike.

The leaders in this space are B-Cycle and Alta Bicycles. And they are busy rolling out programs across the US.

Mobile Bike Share

These systems use mobile technologies, so they’re not reliant on stations and kiosks.

Users find and reserve bikes using their phones. Then they enter their account information into the keypad on the bike to release the lock and begin their ride. Or, they call or text their user ID or use a smart phone app to unlock their bike. The server recognizes the user and unlocks the bike.

When you’re done with the bike, you can park it anywhere you want instead of finding a station and available dock. This alone makes the system incredibly convenient. When you re-lock the bike and indicate that you’re done with it, the system makes it available to other users searching for bikes nearby.

With this system, bike share operators, including cities, universities and companies, do not need real estate for the stations and kiosks. Nor do they bear the cost of the infrastructure. Instead, they buy smart bikes that have all the technology, including GPS and RFID tags built into the bikes to track their movements.

Bike Share Programs

Social Bicycles (SoBi) one of the leading mobile systems

These systems are just now gaining traction, but I fully believe they are the next generation (perhaps now generation) of bike share. Social Bicycle, ViaCycle and WeBike are the big players in this emerging space. Watch for their bikes as they build momentum.

If you really want to stretch your mind, imagine a bike sharing vending machine that stores 32 bikes in the equivalent of one parking spot. Yeah, I know!

This is exciting stuff because bike share is an important catalyst for change. Vélib launched in 2007 and saw a 70% increase in cycling in its first year. Lyon saw a 44% increase in bicycle trips and 96% (!!) of their bike share members had never ridden a bike before in the city center. These systems greatly improve the way users experience those cities, making getting around and exploring a joy instead of a chore.

The more systems we have in place, in cities and on university and corporate campuses, the more people will ride. And the more we ride and the less we rely on cars, the healthier and happier we make ourselves, our communities and our planet.

Next up: Bike Friendly Business Awards (most use bike share, no wonder!)


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