Tag: Bike Share

What’s all the fuss? In the right city, dockless bike sharing is a simple, genteel experience

In Seattle, it was heralded as an urban paradigm shift. In China, it was cited as evidence of a declining national character. In Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, it felt positively genteel.

Victoria dockless bike share

My Ubicycle in front of the B.C. Legislature building in Victoria. Photo by Tom Babin

I’m speaking of dockless bike-share systems, and after reading about them being implemented in cities all over the world, I finally got a chance to try one during a recent trip to Victoria.

Dockless bike-share systems are heralded as the next generation of bike sharing. Rather than being built around a network of docking stations, each bike is equipped with a smartphone-enabled lock and GPS device. The systems are as easy to use as car-sharing systems such as Car2go: Use the app to locate a bike, scan the bike’s QR code and it will unlock. Ride it to your heart’s content. When you’re done, lock it up and be on your merry way. The app charges you for the time you rode.

Victoria is the first city in Canada to catch this latest wave. Ubicycle is behind the city’s scheme, one of a handful of Chinese companies that have dropped tens of thousands of bikes into Chinese cities, and spent millions of dollars bringing such systems to North America, in ways that have not always been smooth (and sometimes disastrous).

Victoria dockless bike share

Spinning around lovely Victoria. Photo by Tom Babin.

The first thing you have to know is a bit about Victoria. The capital of B.C. isn’t exactly Hangzhou. A government town of 85,000, the city is known for its British character, temperate climate and status in the retirement dreams of every snow-weary Canadian east of the Rockies. After a few days in the city, I’ll add a few modifiers: The city is as clean as a NASA lab, its rush hour is adorable, and it’s filled with cyclists taking advantage of a bunch of painted lanes, some beautiful pathways and two kilometres of buffered bike lane. With up to 25 per cent of commuters choosing bikes, the city is doing something right for cyclists. As far as cities go, it’s positively genteel.

The lime green Ubicicyle bikes are scattered throughout the downtown, parked on sidewalks and streets, secured by wheel locks. Victoria is filled with bike racks, but Ubicycles don’t need to be secured to a rack, which led me to observe perhaps the most Canadian thing ever: While those in other cities complain about dockless bikes being strewn about the streets in inconvenient locations, most of the Ubicycles I saw were parked beside existing bike racks. Not locked to the rack, mind you, just parked beside it, as if the previous rider didn’t want to offend any passersby by parking the bike in their path. Did I say the city feels genteel?

After exploring the city for a few days from the saddle of a Ubicycle (need I mention that a bike is the best way to explore a city?), I have a few observations to share:

Victoria dockless bike share

Although it is perfectly legal to leave the bike in all kinds of places in downtown Victoria, I felt like a vandal for this waterfront sidewalk drop because most of the bikes I encountered had been neatly placed near bike racks by other, apparently more conscientious, users. Photo by Tom Babin.

Convenience

One of the great advantages of dockless bike-share systems is their convenience. No more hunting for a docking station. You just park where you stop. Yes, this is an improvement. However, in cities with great bike-share systems, this isn’t really a problem. Montreal, for example, is so strewn with docking stations that finding one nearby is rarely a problem. The key for all systems is to ensure there enough bikes distributed through the city to meet demand at the right times. This often comes down to an old-fashioned idea: trucking bikes around and dropping them in the right spots. From my limited time in Victoria, distribution seemed just fine, but with some caveats. Read on.

The clutter factor

In other cities that have failed to fully commit to a bike-share system, a lack of docking stations can be a death knell for the system. So too can a lack of bikes. So too can a lack of riders. Victoria’s system has only been in operation for a few weeks, so it’s probably too early to judge its success in this area. But I’d hardly say the streets are littered with bikes. In fact, I’d say, based on having to hoof it a few blocks to find a bike more than once, there’s a chance there are not enough bikes, albeit after the problems of too many bikes in other cities, perhaps this is a good starting point. Also, if ridership is a sign of a thriving system, I’d be worried about the health of the system. I have no data to back this up, but I used the same bike multiple times over two days and nobody else picked it up in the meantime.

Cost

There’s a big variance in cost across bike-sharing systems around the continent. One thing this new wave of dockless systems has going for it is affordability. The same holds true in Victoria. The price for a ride is absurdly low: $1 per half-hour. I ran an errand over lunch hour and the ride cost me less than 60 cents. I thought it was an error it was so low. Whether this low cost is sustainable over the long run will be interesting to see. But until then, just get out there and enjoy it.

The mood

One thing that can’t be ignored, considering the problems dockless systems have run into in China, is the way the bikes are being used. Bikes can be vandalized, strewn about haphazardly, parked in illegal locations and tossed into waterways. So far, this doesn’t seem to be a major problem in Victoria. There will always be such problems, but perhaps a small city known for its (sorry) genteel character in a country known for its politeness, a dockless system seems to be doing OK.

The verdict

Ubicycle in Victoria seems to be working. As a tourist, it’s a fantastic way of getting around. The locals I spoke with saw it as a convenient and easy option, and wondered what all the fuss was about. It seemed to be working so well that the drama-loving side of me was a bit disappointed—where’s all the hand-wringing and endless debates about cycling? Yawn.

Because of its small size, Victoria may never have the thriving bike-share systems of New York, for example, but perhaps this will be the opportunity to test whether mid-sized cities can successfully operate a system. I, for one, can’t wait to get back and try it again.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

The sharing economy comes to bikes, but can it replace the government?

Spinlister is a cool little app that just feels right. It brings the so-called sharing economy to the world of bikes in a no-brainer, intuitive way.

But the company is aiming higher than its modest Airbnb-type success so far, and betting on an even bigger idea, if only it can get it off the ground: Can the convenient borrowing of somebody else’s bike replace the need for a government-operated bike-sharing?

Spinlister already offers an Airbnb-style app, but has bigger plans to make bike-sharing easier.

Company officials sure think so. Andrew Batey, Spinlister’s Chief Marketing Officer, told me the company didn’t set out to replace bike-sharing, rather they were simply trying to solve a customer need.

On its most basic level, Spinlister enables the sharing of personally owned bikes. If you have a bike with some downtime, you list it for rent on the app. People who need a bike log into the app, search for those on offer nearby, and go pick up the bike for the pre-designated rental time, with the app handling the financial transaction. It’s Airbnb for bikes, a slick and easy sharing app (that, not incidentally, also works for snowboards and skis) that makes a whole lot of sense.

But the company has bigger plans, and this is where things get really interesting. Traditional public bike sharing thrives on little, impromptu trips. Unplanned rides rides home from the pub. Commutes on sunny days when the bus is full. Last-mile commutes, from the train station to the front door of the office. Not the stuff Spinlister currently thrives on.

The company, however, has developed a so-called “smart” bike (I know, that term makes me roll my eyes too) that Batey says has the potential to do away with traditional bike-sharing systems and their taxpayer-funded costs.

Spinlister’s “smart bike” enables bike-sharing of privately owned machines.

Here’s how it would work (or skip this paragraph and watch the video below): In a nutshell, it’s Car2go for bikes. The bikes are equipped with GPS and nifty Bluetooth-enabled locks. Using a smartphone app, you locate a bike nearby, track it down, then unlock it. You go about your ride, then lock the bike anywhere you want, while the app takes care of the rental-fee transaction. Another tap on the app makes it available to the next rider. No need for docking stations like a traditional bike-sharing program.

Spinlister – The Global Bike Share: Challenges Traditional and Broken Bike Share Model Through Advanced Technology from Spinlister on Vimeo.

But there’s one more important aspect. Each bike, rather than being bought and paid for by program administrators (which, with traditional bike-sharing programs, tend to be government agencies) is privately owned. The rental fee is split by the owner of the bike and Spinlister.

Batey says this idea eliminates the need for taxpayer-funded programs and big, sometimes controversial, rollouts of docking stations.  

“To date, there has been no bike share (except ours) that is sustainable without government funding and private sponsorship,” Batey wrote to me in an email. “Through back channels, (politicians have) said their reasoning is self preservation. When bike share fails and needs more funding, it will be the problem of another administration. Until then, it’s seen as a win with popular support. That just seems like a significant waste and misuse of funds to me. Especially when a self sufficient option exists, costing the city absolutely nothing to implement.”

If that quote sounds perhaps a tad, well, conspiratorial, Batey might have good reason. Plans to launch the idea in Portland last year were scuttled by the city government, ostensibly over concerns that Spinlister’s plan would have negative impacts on the city, such as the city being forced to pick up the costs of dealing with bikes that are stolen, parked illegally, or left to rust in poor locations. There were other concerns as well, and Batey minces few words (even if others might disagree with his read of the situation): “The city there threatened to create a special tax just for us as they didn’t want us competing with their traditional bike share model they’ve been trying to launch for 10 years.”

Chicago's Divvy Bike Share System

Many traditional bike-share systems, such as Chicago’s Divvy, rely on docking stations that can be difficult to place in dense urban areas.

This kind of reaction seems to be what’s holding Spinlister back. Yes, there are some outstanding questions that even the company acknowledges need to be ironed out in the real world, but the company is largely ready to go. It just can’t find a city willing to give it a shot. Most cities these days have well-established bike-share programs and city governments aren’t interested in competition. Somehow, before it has even had a chance to test its business model, Spinlister has found itself to be the Uber of the bike world, at odds with city governments everywhere.

But there’s little doubt the idea is worth a try somewhere. So what will it take?

What the company really needs is a city that is big enough to sustain the business, with a decent bike culture, a populace that understands the sharing model of Car2go, lacks an established bike-share program, has a soft-spot for entrepreneurialism and a hard-spot for government spending.

Sound like a city you know? 

In fact, I already signed up to buy one of the smart bikes if the idea ever takes hold in my city of Calgary. Perhaps living in a bike-share-laggard city will pay off in the end.

 

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