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Will Bike Share Say Goodbye To The Dock?

Picture New York City’s Citi Bike program, the largest of its kind in the U.S. What’s the first image that comes to mind? The nifty blue bikes, of course.

But after that, it’s likely the rows upon rows of docking stations that populate popular commercial, tourist and business districts.

Bike share docking stations are an increasingly common site in a growing number of cities across the U.S., from metro Boston’s Hubway service to Los Angeles’ Metro Bike Share. By the U.S. Department of Transportation’s latest national count in 2016, there were 3,378 bike share docking stations across 104 U.S. cities.

Docking stations are a staple across the pond as well, a mainstay of the modern European city — from the system of Vélib bikes that dot the streets of Paris to Moscow’s VeloBike stations.

While these bike share docks work to handle payments and inventory in an orderly fashion, their fixed locations can be somewhat limited user access. Of the bike share stations in the U.S., for instance, 77 percent were fixed within walking distance of another form of public transit as of the latest data.

The rest were less accessible. Live, work or shop outside of the service area, and even the most eco-conscious consumers might just end up taking an Uber to get where they need to go.

But a change is brewing. As bike share looks toward the future, what they see could very well be dockless.

Rather than relying on stationary docking and payment hardware, dockless services take a mobile approach to bike share.

Leveraging mobile payments, GPS or Bluetooth tracking, QR code or other mobile-based authentication, and auto-locking kick-stands, ditching the dock means riders can view free bikes nearest them and reserve one on their phones.

Riders reserve and unlock bikes with a code and then ride and lock up again when they’re done, leaving the bike available for someone else nearby.

To get a glimpse of bike share’s dockless future, take a look at China.

In the past few years, China’s days-long traffic jams have made international headlines, and the nation’s skies have notably darkened. (Not in an ominous, metaphorical kind of way. In a literal, smog way.)

Naturally, bike share has taken off crowded urban centers of the nation of 1.3 billion — not only as a sign of growing interest in the broader sharing economy but also as one means to address the pressing pollution and traffic issues of highly urbanized, industrial life.

Nearly 30 dockless bike share companies have popped up to compete in China’s latest sharing economy craze, said Forbes. The services are increasingly popular among consumers and investors alike.

One notable exception in China is Hangzhou’s Public Bicycle program. Launched in 2008, there are now roughly 2,700 bike share docking stations in the city of over 9 million. But even this service has mobile features. In 2016, the city of Hangzhou’s public bike sharing service began to allow anyone with a smartphone to rent a bike by scanning a QR code.

In the startup game, it’s largely dockless or bust — and investors are buying in.

Market leaders in China’s bike share startup space have drawn in multiple hundreds of millions in venture capital. Beijing-based bike share Ofo closed a $450 million Series D round in the beginning of March led by Didi Chuxing, for instance. Dockless competitor Mobike scored a $215 million Series D from Tencent back in January.

But ditching the dock doesn’t come without its own share of problems. What mobile-based bike share systems gain in consumer access and convenience, they lose in organization and inventory management capabilities.

This has led to a bit of dockless bike share irony in China. Some sidewalks in Beijing and Shanghai are becoming so congested with freestanding bikes, said Forbes, that the government may look to step in, regulating where riders can park their bikes.

It almost defeats the purpose of a dockless system, but regulation might be necessary. Free space in urban centers is increasingly hard to come by. One can imagine that, should dockless make it big in the U.S., native New Yorkers and Bostonians won’t be too pleased to see bikes clogging up sidewalks across the city.

It’s an issue that will have to be addressed sooner rather than later. Dockless bike share startups are already popping up in cities stateside with national ambitions.

San Mateo-based bike share startup LimeBike, for instance, which just announced a $12 million round of venture funding plans to expand its “Chinese-style” (meaning dockless) bike share system across the U.S. And in January, said TechCrunch, dockless bike share startup Spin announced ambitious plans to roll out 100,000 bikes across various programs in the U.S.

In response, some cities have already introduced dockless bike share regulations.

San Francisco created new rules to prevent bike clutter after Chinese dockless bike share startup Bluegogo had reportedly planned to release thousands of bikes in the city. The city now requires “kiosk-free” bike share companies to obtain a city permit.

More U.S. cities will likely follow suit and roll out their own regulations to quell the coming onslaught of free-standing bikes as dockless startups gain ground in the U.S. and other markets outside China. (China’s Mobike, for instance, recently entered the Singapore market, noted Forbes.)

While city-funded ventures could remain dock-bound to maintain order on the sidewalks, bike share startups will fill in service gaps and feed consumers’ need for convenience by leveraging mobile technology and dockless operation models.

So whether it’s a Citi Bike, a Hubway or a Bluegogo, expect to see even more bikes on the streets very soon — and remember to share the road.

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