Need to find a bike to use for a short trip? There’s an app for that. Well, not yet, but a new start-up company is capitalizing on mobile communications and GPS to create a whole new type of public bike share system. The system eliminates the need for major infrastructure by fastening a lock to the bike’s wheel that has a GPS system built in. When you arrive to your destination, instead of locating a kiosk, simply lock up at any bike rack. When you need a bike again, simply take out your smart phone and locate the nearest bike to you.
The Sobi bike system (which stands for ‘social bike’) was created back in 2008 as a way to create a more cost-effective, as well as innovative, bike share program. I had the opportunity to speak with the founder of Sobi, Ryan Rzepecki, about his unique concept and how it can effectively aid a city’s public transportation mix.
How did Sobi come together? What inspired you to create the company?
I began working on mobile bike share in October of 2008. I loved the concept of bike sharing, but thought that the infrastructure and start-up costs of traditional bike share made it impractical and inefficient. I wanted to create a more flexible and affordable solution that was scalable and financially sustainable. I spent several months refining the concept and filed for my first patent in June of 2009 on the system design. I then worked with my industrial designer, Ted Ullrich, in the fall of 2009 to develop the lock design. In February of 2010 I quit my job at the NYC Department of Transportation so I could focus on the project and put the team in place to prototype the lock and develop the software.
What are the main benefits of this system over some of the more traditional bike share programs?
I guess the most obvious benefit is lower start-up costs. Bixi and B-Cycle’s start-up cost is approximately $5,000 per bicycle. We hope to reduce that cost to around $1000 per bicycle. But we feel our solution is not only cheaper, but more open, flexible, and technologically advanced.
Our lock can attach to almost any bicycle, allowing each city to choose a bike that is right for their budget and local conditions. It gives us the power to negotiate with bike vendors to ensure that we get the best bike at the best price, and it enables us to work with local bike companies when possible. We are using Queens-based Worksman Cycles for the prototype units, but could easily use Specialized in California.
The locks work with any regular bike rack, which means that our system does not require dedicated infrastructure. Instead of taking away parking spaces and sidewalk space for bulky docking stations and kiosks, a city can install thousands of bike racks that will benefit all cyclists. But we don’t plan on unleashing chaos — we will create hub locations which we will use for bike redistribution and where users know a bike will always be available.
We combine the reliability of a station-based model with the flexibility of a personal bike. A user can return a bike to a designated hub at no additional charge, or bike directly to their final location and lock to a bike rack outside of a hub for a $2 convenience fee. The $2 charge will get posted to the map and the next user to return that bike to a hub will receive a $2 credit. In this way, the users will help redistribute the bikes and we can lower the costs to operate the system. Traditional systems are constantly shuttling bikes between stations with trucks, which increases congestion and pollution. We hope to reduce or eliminate truck redistribution by using our incentivized hub system.
Because we have the real-time GPS data for each bike, we’ll be able to collect data to help improve the bike network and eventually add sensors to monitor air-quality and noise levels throughout the city. The technology opens up many exciting possibilities.
I think the user experience will be better as well. Bikes can be unlocked through mobile applications or by entering account information into the keypad on the lockbox. Users can share maps of their trips and publish their location to Facebook Places or foursquare.
Who is installing the Sobi system in their communities?
We have a verbal commitment from 2 universities. I have received inquiries from cities and universities around the world and expect several markets to launch next summer.
How can Sobi benefit a city like Long Beach?
I think bike share would be a tremendous success in Long Beach. It is a fairly dense, flat, bike friendly city with terrific weather. I think SoBi could increase your already high cycling rates, and lead more people to bike for transport rather than for recreation or exercise.
Where does bike share fit into the public transportation equation?
Bike sharing is the fastest growing form of public transportation. In 2007, there were 17 bike share systems world-wide and now there are over 200. Bike share is becoming a new way for cities to increase mobility while at the same time reducing carbon emissions.
What are your future plans for Sobi?
We will be aggressively pursuing the university market next year. Bixi and B-Cycle are simply too expensive for most college bike share programs. At the same time we will be bidding for city-wide contracts as they are released.
[For more information about the Sobi Bike share concept, visit their website here]