Transport Theory

Will urban bike sharing work in the U.S.?

Posting in Cities

With its GPS tracking technology and on-board computer, Social Bicycles could bring urban bike sharing to American cities.

Urban bike-sharing initiatives are not new. They have existed for years, to varying degrees of success, in many cities in Europe and Canada, and have recently taken off in countries like Australia and China. But while bike sharing has had some success in a few American cities in recent years, the practice has never been widespread in the U.S.

Social Bicycles, a New York City-based start-up, hopes to change that. Social Bicycles (SoBi) would use GPS technology to monitor a network of bicycles, custom-fitted with tracking technology and SoBi bike lock, that would allow users to share bikes throughout the city.

Using patent-pending technology, SoBi users would use their computer or smartphone to locate a nearby bike. They would unlock it by typing their account information into the on-board computer (fueled by the bike’s solar panel), which would communicate wirelessly with a central server, authorizing the member access.

Users would then lock the bike up at their destination and carry on with their day. Another user might then locate that same bike and take it out for a spin.

What happens if users don’t return bikes to their specified locations, you may ask? Well, unlike programs like Zipcar, where a car “lives” at a specified parking spot, these bikes would not have a specific home base. You could lock them to a post, as long as they were within pre-determined usage “hubs”. This is the company’s way of ensuring a consistent supply of bikes in popular areas. You could take the bike to a non-hub area, but you’d be charged a recovery fee for taking the bike too far away from the usage center.

The bikes' built-in GPS has benefits that stretch beyond the purely operational. Aside from being able to locate the bikes (a huge disincentive to bike theft, you might say), it allows users to track and share routes and statistics. It would also give city planners a real-time gauge of where people are riding, enabling them to improve the network of bike lanes. Below is a London-based example of what this visualization could look like:

For Social Bicycles founder Ryan Rzepecki, who previously worked for the New York City Department of Transportation, the bike share system is best suited for people making short, one-way trips. “Our primary goal is to create many new urban commuters by offering affordable and convenient public bikes,” he said in an email.

Rzepecki said he does not expect the system to eliminate the need for personal bikes.

“In other cities where bike share has been implemented,” he said, “the sale of personal bikes has actually increased.” He said he hopes that even people who already own bikes can use the system, in situations where a one way trip is more convenient, or their own bike is unavailable.

SoBi's system would also be available to peer-to-peer groups and university communities who wished to develop campus-wide bicycle-sharing systems like UC Irvine's Zotwheels program.

While the cost of the Social Bicycles program may vary depending on different markets, the company is aiming for a model that combines membership and use. In addition to a subscription fee (say, $10/month), users might pay for each additional hour of use.

In addition to New York City, where negotiations with the city government are in progress, Social Bicycles has been in talks with cities like San Francisco, C.A., Portland O.R., Bloomington, I.N. and Buffalo, N.Y. about implementing the system.

So far Social Bicycles has relied on friends and family to fund the project. The company is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign and are hoping to receive $75,000 in funding by August 1. At time of writing, 97 contributors have pledged $6,821. SoBi may take on additional investors after its Kickstarter campaign has concluded.

The company expects its first 60 bikes to be delivered by October, but the product may only be available commercially by next year.

Share this

Channtal Fleischfresser

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Channtal Fleischfresser has worked for The Economist, WNET/Channel 13, Al Jazeera English, Wall Street Journal and Associated Press. She holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure