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Technology Trends: Bike Sharing - Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Bike Sharing

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Bike Sharing

Bicycle sharing programs are not new: some form of them has existed in some communities for decades. For our purposes, however, we’ll use the term to describe specifically those programs powered by a combination of newer technologies, such as mobile phones, web interfaces, GPS, and wireless pay. These newer, smart-bike sharing programs have popped up in cities around the world with varying degrees of success. In the news recently were stories of dockless bike-share bikes being stolen, vandalized, and abandoned in alarming numbers in China and the complete failure and shutdown of a bike sharing program in one of America’s most bike-friendly cities, Seattle.

It’s rocky terrain for sure, but the failures seem to be the exception rather than the norm, and despite the pitfalls, bike sharing continues to proliferate, in roughly 1000 cities worldwide and close to 50 cities in the United States.

For the uninitiated, a bike sharing program at its essence allows riders to rent bikes, picking them up at kiosks located all over town and returning them to other kiosks when they’ve reached their destinations, or at least gotten close enough for a short walk. Payment works in a number of ways, but the most flexible systems offer prepaid membership cards releasing bikes from kiosks with a swipe, as well as payment by mobile app or credit card. Websites and mobile apps show kiosk locations and bike availability. Rentals seldom cover the costs of entire programs, so either private sponsorships (usually in the form of advertising), public subsidies, or public-private agreements keep things running.

Where the programs are successful, riders receive the benefits of bike riding without some of the problems associated with bike ownership. They don’t have to maintain the bikes, and they don’t worry about safe places to lock their bikes up. A bike in a kiosk may be susceptible to vandalism or theft, but riders don’t have to worry about that, as riders of expensive bikes frequently do. If the weather takes a bad turn, a bike-share bike can be returned to a kiosk, and a rider can get a Lyft or Uber for the return trip, something bike owners have some trouble with.

Where the programs are unsuccessful, logistics, planning, geography, politics, and the seemingly limitless predilection for human mischief (we’ll call it mischief rather than ill will, to give us all the benefit of the doubt) are usually to blame. In Seattle’s case, for example, a combination of these seems to have come into play. Seattle has a bicycle helmet law, and bike-share bikes don’t come with helmets, meaning a rider either had to carry around his own helmet, ignore the law and hope for the best, or rent a helmet through a parallel helmet-sharing program, doubling the number of steps needed just to get across town on a bike.

In China, whose cities have been the center of the newer kiosk-less programs, bikes are left at the curb when riders are finished with them, but with competing programs flooding markets for increased visibility, there are often far more bikes in some neighborhoods than the sidewalks can accommodate, resulting in bikes parked illegally. Photos of bikes stacked in awkward mountains twenty bikes high and twenty across, where police officers have removed them from blocking sidewalks, are amusing, horrifying, and not at all unusual.

Yet bike sharing continues to roll out in cities around the world. Some appear to have reaped the benefit of other cities’ failures, avoiding the pitfalls where others have stumbled. Cities with favorable weather are ripe for bike sharing (although cities with notoriously difficult weather, such as Chicago, have also made it work), as well as cities with high tourism traffic, bike-friendly streets, and bike-friendly parks. The tourism markets work especially well, with a combination of recreational biking and functional transportation. Strategic and liberal placement of kiosks helps a lot too, with a certain density and visibility crucial to rider participation, and at least a semi-sustainable sponsorship model to cover costs.

Whether a successful bike share program is worth a city’s investment remains to be seen in the long term, but early reports show an increase in participants’ health, if nothing else, and a surprisingly low number of fatal accidents involving bike-share bikes. If it will also lessen the traffic load and get more people out of cars, that could be gravy. After shutting down its program in January 2017, Seattle launched a new one in August 2017, so somebody somewhere thinks it’s worth the effort.

 

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