A new model for bikesharing

October 30, 2013

San Francisco recently launched the Bay Area Bike Share system, which closely followed launches of large bike sharing systems in Chicago and New York. Bike sharing systems are growing in popularity quickly: as of May 2012, there were approximately 184 bikesharing programs operating in 204 cities around the world, with 368,600 bicycles and 13,600, according to a recent MTI Funded Cycling Report.

The growth of bikesharing can be partially attributed to an increasing number of people, especially young professionals living in cities, as well as the desire for greener transportation. The cost of providing bikesharing has been lowered recently with the advances in technology surrounding bike sharing systems: GPS tracking, kiosk technology and the ubiquity of smartphones that make it easy for users to locate shared bikes (and drop off locations).

babs-mapSan Francisco’s bike share system doesn’t cover the entire city yet, just a few of downtown neighborhoods. However, within the section of the city that it does cover, there are frequent docking stations.

I’ve found bikesharing to be very useful in solving the “last mile” problem – San Francisco’s less-than-comprehensive transit system leaves gaps where biking is simply faster. With bikeshare stations near the four downtown BART stations, it’s easy to get to locations deep in SOMA, or towards North Beach where transit links aren’t great.

I tend to bike a lot of places anyway, and own several bikes. However, bikesharing offers the convenience of one-way trips, and the ability to “acquire” a bike anywhere I am. I find myself grabbing a bikeshare bike to connect places that I would have previously walked. Unlocking and locking the bikes takes almost no time, so even trips as short as two blocks make sense if there is a bikeshare station at both the start and end.

Bitlock was recently launched on Kickstarter. Its a smart U-lock that replaces the bike key with your smart phone. While offers some cool features and convenience for any bike user (keeping track of your trips, super fast proximity lock/unlock), I’m most excited about its ability to facilitate a new model of bikesharing.

Bitlock enables users to share their bikes with trusted friends, and those friends only need their smartphone to unlock and lock the bike. This opens up a few interesting possibilities:

Sharing your bike with a friend without needing to arrange giving them the keys
In a situation where a friend can get physical access to your bike (its locked in your accessible backyard, they have access to your house, they are a roommate), they can use the bike (with your permission) without you needing the leave keys for them, or retrieve keys.

Sharing your bike with a group of friends, and being able to use theirs
I imagine this working best in a campus situation. Through the BitLock app, you can see a map of shared bikes that you have access to (or potentially request access to). You can then use the same app to unlock and relock the bike.

Its interesting that you would not necessarily need to return the bike to the same location you got it from, and could leave it anywhere that is secure. The app then would report the location to the owner (and anyone else who might like to borrow it).

bitlock-app

This new model can bypass the large dock and kiosk installation expenses of traditional station-based bikesharing systems. According to BitLock, it can costs upwards of $6000 per bicycle to implement these bikeshare systems in addition to on-going maintenance costs. At the same time, these systems lack flexibility in that picks up and drop offs must be a specified locations and they have the potential of full docks.

SOBI and ViaCycle offer station-less bikesharing using GPS tracking, data connections, built-in locks and solar panels. Their bikes can be locked to any bike rack. Systems like this cost much less per bike to setup, but require special bikes and monthly data fees.

BitLock enables a smaller-scale, more flexible and less expensive bike sharing system. With the flexibliity of being able to use existing bike racks, any bike can be used with BitLock. Small communities like colleges, hotels, apartments, resorts and businesses could easily deploy their own bike sharing system using any type of bike and BitLock. Any type of bike can be used: rural parks could offer mountain bikesharing systems, skate parks could offer BMX sharing and parks could offer tandem-bikesharing.

BitLock need not be limited to bikes: Any equipment that can be locked with a u-lock could be converted to sharing: canoes, kayaks, scooters and even pogo-sticks could be made into sharing systems using something like BitLock.

bitlock-explodeThe cost of deploying a non-station-based sharing system is just the bicycle cost plus one BitLock (currently $99 on kickstarter). No station or parking infrastrcture is needed if there are existing bike racks available. Such a system could be very flexible as users could be allowed to pick up and drop off a bike anywhere within a specified region.

I think bikesharing in general will continue to grow in popularity, and BitLock will help enable more flexible systems in a wider variety of places than traditional citywide station-based system.