Car-sharing services are becoming increasingly popular in the US, particularly in urban areas where it’s more convenient and cost-efficient to borrow a car instead of owning one. However, for many urban dwellers and visitors, a car can still be impractical for getting from one place to the next—parking, traffic, and other concerns come into play.
Enter bike-sharing services, which are slowly but surely making their way across both the US and Europe. As many cyclists already know, bikes come with low overhead, are good for the environment, good for you, and can get you across town quickly, making the growing number of bike-sharing services quite popular where they are available.
One bike-sharing service that has caught the attention of the Internet recently is SoBi, or Social Bikes. The startup, founded by Ryan Rzepecki, hopes to approach bike sharing in a different way than others that have gained popularity, saving some serious cash upon deployment of the bike fleet and giving riders even more flexibility.
Sharing is caring
For those who aren’t familiar with how these resource-sharing services typically work, check out our story about the technology behind Zipcar. In a nutshell, there are little car lots (or in the case of B-Cycle, a company that will soon deploy shared bikes in Chicago, bike stations) located all over a city that are locked when not in use. A user can make a reservation online for a car or bike and then pick it up at the designated time.
There is no human interaction required: once the mode of transportation is reserved, the user identifies him or herself to the car or bike either by RFID (Zipcar) or PIN at the cycle station (B-Cycle), which then unlocks the car/bike. When the user is done, he or she returns the vehicle to the same lot so that others can make use of the car. For B-Cycle, users can return bikes to any B-Cycle station, not necessarily the one they rented from.
How does SoBi differ?
The SoBi system follows a similar path, but the technology is a bit more advanced than that of services like B-Cycle. “The way bike share systems like this typically work is you have these kiosks and docking stations throughout the city. One of the first successful bike share systems was one in Paris, which now has over 20,000 bikes,” Rzepecki told Ars. “In the US, there are new companies like Fixie and B-cycle, but our system takes it one step further technology-wise. The idea is that you can put all the authorization and the security systems right on to the bike itself.”
For one, there are no cycle stations: SoBi bikes are parked all over the city (starting in New York City) at regular old bike racks. This means that bikes could, in fact, be anywhere at any given time, and not just at a designated station that could be blocks away. You can pick up any bike that’s not already reserved, and drop it off anywhere without having to hunt down a drop-off station.
Like a Zipcar, each SoBi bike is equipped with its own “lockbox” that communicates wirelessly with the SoBi servers via GPS and a cellular receiver (an H-24 module from Motorola, Rzepecki told Ars). When you make a reservation online or via smartphone, you see a map of all the bikes in the area based on their GPS data and are given the option to unlock a specific bike when you click on it. “The server verifies your account, and sends your account info to the lockbox, so you can unlock it with your PIN,” Rzepecki said.
A smartphone isn’t necessarily required, though—that’s just the easiest way to reserve. SoBi is working on a way for users to walk right up to the bikes and enter their PINs and, as long as the bike isn’t already reserved, they can ride away right then and there. “I think it’s important to realize that not everybody is using smartphones. I think that’s the trend, and we wanted to focus on where the technology is going, not where it’s been,” Rzepecki said. “But I think at the same time you have to accommodate people who might not be comfortable with launching an app and finding and unlocking a bike that way. And, I don’t think that people just want to use a keypad to enter their account number.”
Because bikes could be locked up anywhere at any given time, it’s clear that SoBi doesn’t cater to those who like to plan far in advance (I sometimes reserve a Zipcar days ahead of when I need it), since a bike could disappear at any moment and might not come back to the same location. Rzepecki agreed, saying that the service is largely meant for on-the-spot rentals, though a bike will remain locked for just you for 10 to 15 minutes after you reserve it. If you park a bike somewhere to run in and get something, it will stay reserved for you for 10 minutes—after that, it will free up for any other user to come by and take it.
Since the lockbox contains a GPS module, a cell chip, and a lock that works with a PIN pad, there has to be some way to power it. The SoBi team is still working out the kinks in power consumption, but plans to power the devices with a hub dynamo on the bike’s rear wheel. The lockbox is essentially powered by your pedaling—no charging stations required.
Money: it’s what I want!
The big questions about SoBi, after “how does it work?”, largely revolve around cost. Rzepecki says that a conventional bike sharing system with stations can run between $3,000 and $4,000 per bike to start up, but a SoBi lockbox can be produced for around $500, plus the cost of the bike. This makes it much easier to deploy more bikes much more quickly, and there isn’t as much a concern about finding space for bike stations.
We say “as much” because SoBi says there will still be a few stations where personnel can bring back bikes to redistribute around the city, and for users to go to find bikes at all times. In fact, there will be a financial reward for users who bring bikes back to the designated hubs instead of leaving them locked up to a rack—somewhere to the tune of $1 or $2 per bike, Rzepecki said. That may not sound like much, but those little credits can add up fast, and riding a couple extra blocks isn’t a big deal to most cyclists.
Speaking of cost to the user, it seems SoBi still hasn’t decided exactly how it wants users to pay for their bike use, but it will likely be via membership. “I envision a system where a user pays an annual or monthly fee that grants you a certain amount of free time each day. Perhaps 90-120 minutes,” Rzepecki told Ars. “If you go over that amount, you will be charged a higher day-pass rate.”
And, of course, there’s the concern about users destroying or stealing bikes. Rzepecki confirmed that they will be charged between $500 and $1,000—a typical amount for most bike sharing services. However, if a bike is “lost” and its lockbox tells the server that it’s locked up properly somewhere, the last person who used it won’t be charged and a staff member or another user will pick it up for redistribution elsewhere.
Where we’re going, we don’t need cars
Bike sharing services are still so new in the US that many of us would just be happy to have them at all—good, bad, and in between. Still, it’s always wise to implement things the right way the first time around, and SoBi looks to be aiming for the best balance of cost and technology out of all the options thus far. The company is still a startup, though, so it’s possible that SoBi will never extend outside of the Big Apple. But given what we learned while talking to Rzepecki, we think there’s great potential for SoBi to become the bike sharing service that really takes off.