The bike share program in Long Beach has been somewhat of a circus, in part due to Bike Nation (BN)—Long Beach’s proposed bike share partner—and their various issues. From downsizing their employees and partners (Long Beach bike vet and guru April Economides was let go shortly after being brought on as General Manager of the program) to advertising issues (Bike Nation basically lost Los Angeles, their most promising client in terms of advertising revenue, because they later discovered they, well, couldn’t advertise), BN is proving to be a difficult partner in getting bike share to actually come to Long Beach.
While we await the run-around with BN—a contract was signed March 1 of last year which, at least in the name of a free bike share program, doesn’t amount to much in tangible success—other options should be discussed, particularly viable, sustainable models that have worked.
Enter Social Bikes (SoBi).
“We are trying to change perception. This is bike share, right? The bike share most people know of is developed from technology nearly a decade old—and it hasn’t really progressed. We’re taking advantage of the fact that people carry little computers in their pockets.”
SoBi works from the opposite philosophy of BN. BN operates from a smart rack angle; that is, racks are where the bikes come from and where they’re returned to. The cost of these racks is exorbitant: BN is expected to spend some $12M to bring about 2500 bikes at 250 locations (it should be noted here that BN has yet to install a single kiosk in Long Beach, while its program in Anaheim was shuttered and moved to Fullerton). Even further, this amounts to massive infrastructure planning. The star, in this sense, is the rack.
SoBi operates differently: rather than having racks to return the bikes to, SoBi bikes are equipped with individual locks on the bike. What this translates into: being able to lock up a SoBi bike at any bike rack which means that, within the city, a user can take it to any place he or she pleases with no need to find a kiosk or worry about the kiosk’s operations. The star, in SoBi’s sense, is the bike.
Using smartphone apps and their website, users can locate a bike, reserve it, and unlock the bike by entering their unique PIN provided to them. GPS systems attached to the bikes track the bikes at all times and when you’re done, you can leave it at your final destination.
“Bluntly put, I want lower capital costs to get something off the ground for cities,” said SoBi CEO Ryan Rzepecki. “You don’t need—and shouldn’t need—$5,000 a bike to get a bike share system off the ground.”
SoBi bikes cost less than half that—about $2K per bike.
“Usually when I explain the technology and how SoBi works, people immediately ask, ’So you don’t have stations?’” Rzepecki continued. “That’s not exactly true: we have hubs, much like BIXI in Toronto—but they’re just regular bike racks, not smart kiosks. If a user does not lock up their bike at a destined hub location, they are charged a nominal fee; the next user who uses that bike and returned it to a hub gets a credit, so we provide economic incentives to make sure at least a certain amount of hubs have bikes continually at them.”
The functionality of the SoBi’s GPS tracking provides cities powerful data: the ability of knowing how people are biking, where they’re biking, and why they’re biking.
Without having to install tens of thousands of dollars in technology at every hub, SoBi can “do smaller installs of bikes and cover more of Long Beach at the same time.”
Rzepecki, who studied urban planning, has a passion for transportation that shows through in his innovation with SoBi. And with $2M raised so far and a backer in Irish venture capital firm SOS Ventures, others seems to believe in his work too—and rightfully so.
One of the largest incentives outside of the fact that his bike share program is much more grounded economically and in user-friendliness, the bikes’ sophisticated GPS systems provide real-time data that could be a gold mine for a City with a capital C. The functionality of the GPS tracking—opposite of BN’s point-to-point, kiosk-to-kiosk data—provides cities the ability of knowing how people are biking, where they’re biking, and why they’re biking.
An example of this data—and the power of it—is shown in a visualization through a pilot project that SoBi did last year in Hoboken. Though the API is currently private, SoBi plans on opening up more and more of the data to the public, eventually providing “hackers and data geeks the data so they can get at it and build stuff based upon it.”
“We are trying to change perception,” Rzepecki said. “This is bike share, right? The bike share most people know of is developed from technology nearly a decade old—and it hasn’t really progressed. We’re taking advantage of the fact that people carry little computers in their pockets.”
SoBi had four projects last year: SFO Airport in San Francisco; Sun Valley, Idaho; SUNY Buffalo, New York; and a six-month pilot project in Hoboken, New Jersey. This year proves even more fruitful: Phoenix will have 500 Social Bicyles while Tampa is expected to receive 300.
Rzepecki has offered to sit down with Long Beach and have a (much-needed) talk about possibilities. What say you, Long Beach?