It is not likely that anyone in Amsterdam in 1965 would have predicted that the handout of 50 free “white bikes” by the anarchist group Provo would spark a worldwide phenomenon of public bike systems some 50 years later. Today’s broadening reach of bike sharing is a consequence of many factors unforeseen even a decade ago, with “third generation” bike fleets made largely possible through advances in information technology, including credit card payments, GPS tracking of bicycles, and smartphone apps to show real-time availability.
Last year marked a 12 percent year-over-year increase in the total number of bicycles in sharing schemes around the world. Database expert Russell Meddin has reported on new fleets, fleet expansions, and upgrades across Europe, Asia, and the Americas. China announced 60 new launches last year alone, also claiming the two largest fleets—78,000 bikes in Hangzhou and 40,000 in Beijing. Meddin’s January 2016 tally counted 1.27 million total two-wheelers in almost 1,000 cities worldwide, roughly double the numbers recorded for 2011. Meddin tallies current U.S. totals at 31,700 bikes on the ground in nearly 100 cities, 34 states, and the District of Columbia. That is not to say every bikeshare launch has gone smoothly: Seattle’s Pronto is currently facing a $1.4 million deficit, and cities such as New York and Chicago have faced other issues.
Four key factors in 2015 collectively may signal the transition to a fourth generation and further growth of the U.S. market. These are the following: 1) greater social equity, 2) smart bike technology, 3) e-bikes (a bicycle with an integrated electric motor), and 4) mobility integration.
U.S. Fleets: 2015 and Beyond
The picture for domestic U.S. growth in the past year continued to be promising with 23 new launches. It was also a year of recovery from the 2013–2014 upheavals in the equipment and operations sector caused by the demise of operator Alta Bicycle Share and the bankruptcy of Bixi, its Montreal-based supplier.
The biggest growth story in 2015 was agency approval of a ten-fold increase to the Bay Area Bike Share (BABS) system, from 700 to 7,000 bicycles. With buildout expected by 2018, this would solidify the BABS network as the nation’s only regionally linked system connecting San Francisco, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose. Metro Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare system plans to grow by as many as 1,000 bikes by 2018, and Los Angeles hopes to have 1,000 bikes launched in the summer of 2016, although it has yet to secure corporate sponsorship.
Securing corporate sponsors seems to be getting easier. In early January, Nike announced a $10 million, five-year sponsorship of Portland, Oregon’s fleet of 1,000 bikes. Having been in limbo for several years, Portland is finally on target to launch BIKETOWN in July 2016.
Focusing on Social Equity
Newer bike-share installations are putting much greater emphasis on attracting underserved constituents, and Philadelphia’s city-owned Indego system, launched in April 2015, comes closest to being a national model. Aaron Ritz of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities remarks, “We chose stations in neighborhoods that serve [people of] all income levels, and not just concentrations for higher-income commuters or tourists.” This statement reiterates a key goal of the strategic business plan to “develop a system that serves users in minority and low-income communities and improves their access to key destinations.”
What makes Philadelphia unique is that nearly one-third of its 73 stations are located in neighborhoods classified as low-income. Twenty-seven percent of Philadelphians continue to live below the poverty line in a city where 55 percent of the population is black or Latino. Indego outreach to such neighborhoods is being assisted by a $3 million infusion of funds from the JPB Foundation.
Focus group interviews conducted by Temple University before the system launched laid the groundwork for a menu of low-cost payment options such as extending the use cycle to 60 minutes instead of 30, and cash payment in lieu of credit card. One of the options that Indego offers is a one-hour, unlimited usage pass coupled with its renewable 30-day membership. Monthly cash passes can be conveniently purchased at 7- Eleven or Family Dollar outlets, or customers can pay by the ride at a $4 per half-hour rate.
In order to promote Indego as a program for everyone, the city enlisted the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia to recruit ambassadors from various neighborhoods. Part of this ongoing strategy is to overcome whatever apprehensions exist that bike share will lead to gentrification. Later this year, the city and the Bicycle Coalition will sign on a second team of ambassadors, and the latter will be expanding its menu of classes in basic riding and safety skills. Similar collaborations are occurring in Chicago and elsewhere.
Dockless “Smart Bike” Technology: Portland, Oregon
One of the newest IT breakthroughs is credited to Social Bicycles, a recent startup and supply source for Portland’s new system. SoBi’s “smart bike” concept differs from others because the entry and checkout function is packed into a small computer terminal on board each bike, rather than at fixed system-branded racks (i.e., docks). Again, mobile apps and sophisticated back-end IT software are the brains behind this dockless advancement. And although the bikes themselves are more expensive than what is offered by B-Cycle and some other fixed-dock providers, the net cost tends to be lower. The big test will come once Portland’s BIKETOWN fleet becomes reality.
Portland customers will have the added convenience of parking at any of the city’s stock of 3,000 conventional public racks, but with this technology they will be able to park anywhere, even beyond system boundaries. But there is a caveat: locking up elsewhere will cost the customer a few dollars more, but the added charge will be credited to the next rider as an incentive to park at a system rack. When the system launches next July, it will increase SoBi’s smart bike presence to 20 locations worldwide.
Will E-bikes Take Off in the United States?
While biking overall in the United States is viewed mainly as a form of recreation, bicycles with integrated electrical motors to enhance pedaling are largely unknown there. Public-use bike programs in over 60 cities in Europe currently have an e-bike component, and last year China forged ahead by adding 3,000 more e-bikes to a huge fleet in Jincheng. E-bikes, or “pedelecs,” are not solely electric because it is only after the cyclist pedals a few revolutions that the electric mechanism activates to ease the ride. This is why e-bikes are also called “pedal assist.”
Hilly landscapes and summer heat waves pose series obstacles to conventional bicycle travel, and American low-density sprawl often means that cyclists must travel farther to reach their destinations. Such impediments can easily be overcome with e-bikes. From a demographic perspective, e-bikes have the potential to attract large customer cohorts in the United States, including potential customers whose physical condition is below par, who have limited cycling experience, or who wish to travel the longer distance. And the baby boom generation, with over 70 million elderly Americans, may pose the largest cohort of all. In remarks made at last fall’s North Carolina Bicycle Summit, Social Bicycles CEO Ryan Rzyepecki called e-bikes the “wave of the future.”
Although some U.S. cities have seriously pondered the e-bike/bike-share option, only Birmingham has integrated it into its Zyp fleet, which launched last October as a public/private partnership. Composed of 200 bikes and 50 e-bikes, it is scheduled to roughly double in size this spring. Zyp’s energy supply is off-grid, with solar canopies at each docking station to recharge the batteries. The cost of the fleet system is comparable to its competitors’ while at the same time it has the flexibility to convert its basic eight-gear bike to an e-bike if demand increases. According to Lindsey West, the local director of Zyp, “We wanted to reduce the barriers for elderly people, people with knee surgery, anyone who still needs a little assistance, but [who] wants access to bikes.” Zyp bikes and the GPS-enabled software were supplied by Bewegen Technologies of Quebec, Canada.
West further notes that “one key caution is the battery life, which is limited to roughly 50 miles [80 km], depending on how much self-pedaling occurs. But the user can track this because each bike has a smart component on the handlebar to track remaining battery life. In a worst-case scenario, a bicyclist can still pedal to the nearest docking station, or we can dispatch a pickup vehicle.”
So why haven’t e-bikes been incorporated into more public-use programs? According to Randy Newfeld, director of the SRAM Cycling Fund, in an interview with the Shared Use Mobility Center last August, “The biggest challenge is cost. E-bikes are more expensive and maintenance can also cost more, especially the batteries, which wear out over time.” Other experts claim that it would be very costly for the current crop of providers to convert to e-bikes because of the heavy investment recently made in the current stock, and an industry that some feel is not yet on firm financial footing. Such factors may be overcome in the long term, however, especially if demand for e-bikes keeps rising.
“Mobility integration” is a notion whereby an array of IT apps could enable the user to plan, track, and choose as effortlessly as possible between walking, bike-sharing options, and other transportation modes. It is an important concept in an emerging customer environment that envisions the ascendance of multimodal travel over auto-first dependence. Transit agencies have taken the lead in this effort, but the bike-share industry is catching up.
More than 200 open-source transit-planning apps now exist. They range from apps made available by a single transit agency to those that cover hundreds of cities worldwide. Roughly two-thirds of all transit agencies now make free “open data” information available to third-party developers. Last November, the North American Bikeshare Association (NABSA) announced the adoption of its own open-data standard. It’s a move to make real-time data available publicly and formatted in a way that can be easily reflected via Google Maps, Ride Scout, or Transit App. While a powerful tool, it is just a single component of an integrated transportation universe that is yet to unfold.
The bigger question is if a tipping point in travel choice will be reached any time soon. Is it foreseeable that fourth-generation advances will also herald a decisive shift in mode share? Is it realistic to anticipate that autos will become a service instead of a commodity as planners in Helsinki, Finland, are envisioning? Such an achievement could “make car ownership pointless by 2025.” It is a prospect that merits further consideration in the years ahead.