Putting Chips to Work for Sharing Pedal Power

At their genesis, bike-sharing networks were low on tech and heavy on grassroots, cooperative spirit. But the programs and systems rolling out today for tracking and distributing up to thousands of bicycles in cities from Milan to San Antonio are of another generation — one built upon mobile access to the real-time web and GPS chips.

Armed with these IT tools, new and evolving bike-sharing networks fit into the larger trends of smarter digital and networked transportation systems, innovation around providing mobility as a service, and moves by unconventional players (from non-profits to advertising giants to health insurance firms to new startups) to assume new roles in the transportation sector.

Public entities are getting into the act, too, with Montreal’s BIXI system being deployed in cities in the U.S. and the UK, while federal and state governments are providing seed money and ongoing funds for some programs. The hope is that the right combination of technology, pricing and convenience will help integrate bicycles into the larger transportation system at mass scale (right up there with buses, trains, ferries and taxi cabs, for example) and spur the growth of some new businesses in the process.

On Friday, the world’s largest bike share network will launch in London, with 6,000 bikes at 400 stations. It’s an illustration of what technologies like text messaging, smartphones with GPS, and the real-time web are ultimately driving in the bike-sharing market: a shift in scale, as infrastructure costs come down, and growing convenience attracts a broader market.

As it becomes increasingly common for consumers to have web access on the go –and operators can use sensors and real-time communication to flag available docks and bikes — barriers to adoption are falling away. It’s just plain easier to find a station and a bike that’s ready to roll. And with GPS chips that can locate you, a bike, or a parking spot, operators have a tool for tackling the bane of bike sharing networks of yore: theft.

A similar shift can be seen on the automotive side of the “mobility as a service” market. Whereas car sharing providers have had networks at the city or regional scale for years, often using a nonprofit model, Zipcar (s ZIP) has built up a national footprint and begun to extend its reach overseas over the last decade. While the company — which filed in June for a $75 million IPO — has never turned a profit, its revenues reached $131.2 million last year, up from just $13.7 million in 2005.

Zipcar, which has also grown through acquisitions, developed its fleet technology with a plan to scale it. The company’s vehicles carry some essential hardware, including a “black box” device (a custom circuit board, processor and modem) fitted to a vehicle windshield that allows users to unlock the car they’ve reserved, and also lets Zipcar remotely monitor vehicles. It’s a relatively streamlined customization process, compared with competing systems that require installation of keypads in the dash, for example, or a hands-free calling setup. In fact, Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith has told us that the ideal vehicle for car sharing would be modeled after smartphones, with an open platform that would allow Zipcar to roll new cars into its fleet with little more than a software download.

Zipcar’s grand vision is for a subscriber who lives near its Cambridge, Mass. headquarters, for example, to rent a car in a Barcelona or London Zipcar fleet just as easily as in their home network. Might we eventually be able to rent a bike just as easily in any city around the world, with the swipe of a smartcard or by sending a text message? The race is on to find out, as a growing number of operators seek to replicate their systems in other cities.

We put together a cheat sheet on 10 bike sharing networks to watch earlier this year. But the pace of growth in these programs called for an update, so we revamped our guide to show how bike-sharing networks are putting technology to work, who’s paying how much, and what you might expect to find in your own city sometime soon. There are dozens more that we couldn’t include on our list (tell us about ’em in the comments section), but here’s 20 places to watch as the latest generation of bike sharing systems put chips to work for pedal power.

Network Who’s Involved How It Works Scale & Timeline What It  Costs
Barclays Cycle Hire, (London, England) System developed by Montreal’s BIXI. City transportation authority (Transport for London) runs it. Sponsored by Barclays. Users can pick up/drop off bikes unlimited number of times during rental period. For first month, users must pre-register at tfl.com and pay £3 for a smartcard. Later anyone will be able to unlock bikes with debit/credit card. Scheduled to launch Jul. 30, 2010 with 6K bikes at 400 stations. Installation/operation costs expected to total £140M over six years. Subscription options include £45/year, £5/week or £1/day access. Usage fees apply after first 30 mins (£1 up to 1 hour, £4 up to 90 mins, £6 up to 2 hours) the UK Independent reports. £150 late return fee (15 min grace period if docking station’s full).
B-cycle (Denver, Colorado) B-cycle (made up of health insurance firm Humana, Trek Bicycle and ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky) designed the system. Non-profit Denver Bike Sharing owns/operates. Users can sign up for membership online or at a kiosk. Access card required to unlock bikes, which can be returned to any other station around the city. Launched Apr. 2010 with 500 bikes at 50 stations. $40/year for students. $65/year membership (unlimited). $55/year per employee for corporations. Free first 30 mins, with rate increasing from $1.10 for each additional half-hour.
Bicincitta (Italy, Spain) System provided by Comunicare. Networks operated in partnership with city councils, in some cases with advertiser support. Swipe card unlocks bike from columnar stand. Bikes can be returned to any available stand. Users can view bike availability in real time by logging in at bicinitta.com. Launched 2004. Nearly 5,500 stands installed to date. Varies by city. Free in some cities, about 80 cents per hour, sometimes with an annual membership fee, in others.
Bicing (Barcelona, Spain) City works with Clear Channel Outdoor’s SmartBike to manage. Funding provided through fees collected for cars parked in city center. Orlians Engineering and Prototyping developed the original SmartBike system; Antwerp-based Creacom BVPA wrote the specifications; XLN-t designed the hardware. Swipe card to unlock, keep for up to two hours, return to any open dock. Launched 2007. Currently 400 stations, 6K bikes. 24 euros to register. 30 eurocents per 30 mins. after first half hour.
BikeMi (Milan, Italy) Clear Channel Outdoor’s SmartBike. Sign up for membership/access card online. Availability of bikes at different stations can be checked online. Launched Nov. 2008. Currently 103 stations, 1,200 bikes. €36 annual, €6 weekly or €2.5 daily subscription, plus usage fees (€0.50 per 30 mins. after first half hour, €2 per 30 mins after 2 hours).
BIXI (Montreal, Canada) Operated by BIXI, Montreal’s Public Bike System Company. Subscriptions sold via web or phone. Day pass available at solar-powered, wi-fi enabled kiosks. Portable stations can be relocated based on demand, removed during winter. Bike availability updated in real-time, accessible via web, iPhone or other mobile device. Launched in 2009 with 3K bikes. Now has 5K bikes at 400 stations. $78 season pass (May-November, depending on weather), $28/month, $5/day. Usage fees charged after 30 mins. Max 24-hour rental. Montreal invested some $13M to develop and start the program.
BIXI Toronto (Toronto, Canada) Operated by Montreal’s BIXI. Sponsor TBA. Plan calls for users to swipe a credit card or pass. 10-year program starting May 2011. 1K bikes at 80 sites. City to guarantee $4.8M 10-year loan. Expected to cost $1.3M/year to run. Subscriptions go for $30/month or $80/year, plus usage fees after 30 mins.
Bizi (Zaragoza, Spain) Clear Channel Outdoor’s SmartBike. Sign up for membership/access card online. Availability of bikes at different stationscan be checked online. Launched 2008 with 300 bikes at 30 stations. Currently 100 stations, 1K bikes. €25 annual subscription or €5 for 3 days. Usage fees €0.50 per 30 mins after first half hour. €3 per hour after 2 hour max.
Capital Bikeshare (Washington, D.C.) Montreal/Public Bike System Company’s BIXI system to be operated by Alta Bicycle Share Company. Solar-powered docks will use wireless technology to allow for easy installation and adjustments. Expected to launch Sep. 2010 with 1,100 bikes at 114 stations (100 in D.C., 14 in Arlington). Annual, weekly and daily membership rates TBA.
Chicago B-cycle (Chicago, Illinois) System designed by B-Cycle. Users can sign up for membership online or at a kiosk. Access card required to unlock bikes, which can be returned to any other station around the city. Launching Jul. 30, 2010 with 100 bikes at six stations. Membership fees are reportedly $35 for 30 days, $45 for 60 days or $55 for 90 days, or $10 for 1-day access. $2.50 for each 30 mins. after first half hour.
Cyclocity Toyama (Toyama City, Japan) Backed by city government. Run by Cyclocity, a subsidiary of French ad agency JCDecaux. Sponsored by Unilever. Zenexity Company developed AllBikesnow iPhone app with JCDecaux for the Cyclocity system. Bikes can be returned to any station in the city, placed every 300-500 meters in central Toyama. JCDecaux’s AllBikesnow iPhone app provides real-tie info on bike and docking station availability, and directions to stations. Launched Mar. 2010 with 150 bikes at 15 stations. City reportedly invested 150M yen. Annual subscription costs 700 yen/month. Week-long pass costs 1,000 yen. First 30 mins free.
Ecobici (Mexico City, Mexico) Operated by Clear Channel Outdoor Mexico, supported by city government. Registration required online or at the Ecobici office to get an RFID swipe card, which unlocks the bike. Launched in Feb. 2010 with 1,100 bikes at 85 stations (only 50 stations fully functional). According to The Bike-sharing Blog, plans call for expansion to 6K bikes. 300 pesos/year subscription. 200 peso refundable each rental session. First 30 min. free, then 10 pesos up to 1 hour, 35 pesos per hour after that. City’s goal is to get 24K subscribers in first year.
Hourbike (UK and Ireland) Operated by Hourbike. Equipment produced by Czech Republic-based Homeport. Branded for each city. Users key in a ticket number or swipe a smartcard and PIN to unlock bike. Real time availability can be checked online. GPRS technology and cellular networks used to track who’s using the system at a given time. Launched in 2006. Largest city program is in Blackpool, with 400 bikes. Charges vary by location. In Blackpool, membership for an individual or family costs £10. Usage fees £1 per hour after first 30 mins.
Nice Ride Minneapolis (Minneapolis & St. Paul, Minnesota) System developed and installed by Montreal’s BIXI, which will also manage customer service. Backed by Blue Cross, Bike Walk Twin Cities, city government. Non-profit Nice Ride Minnesota running the program. Ads will be sold for individual stations. Full-time crews shuttling around in small electric vehicles will clean/ maintain the fleet. Tourists can sign up for day use via kiosk/credit card reader at station. Solar-powered kiosks can be removed in winter. Day pass sold at kiosk. Subscriptions sold via web or phone. Launched Jun. 2010 with 1K bikes at 80 stations. Bike Walk Twin Cities allocated $1.75M in federal funds. City will provide $350K. Additional $1M will come from tobacco settlement funds through Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. $60/year subscription for unlimited number of rentals April-November.
SmartBike (Washington, D.C.) Clear Channel Outdoor runs SmartBike for district. Revenue from fees and subscriptions goes to DOT. Clear Channel gets exclusive ad rights at bus shelters. Sign up for membership/access card online. Availability of bikes at different stations can be checked online. 3-hour max rental period. Launched in 2008 with 100 bikes at 10 stations. Individual subscriptions cost $40/year.
OV-fiets (Netherlands) Pro Rail in collaboration with Dutch national train company Nederlands Spoorwegen, Fietserbond cyclists union and public authorities, subsidized by Dutch government. Staffed facilities mostly at train stations, with fully automated “bike dispensers” starting to be installed at some locations, according to Bikeoff.org, with access via smartcard. Dutch bank account required. Pilot project launched 2002. 3,000 bikes and electric scooters at 185 stations. 600K rides booked each year. €9.5 annual membership, plus usage fees of €2.85/20 hours for up to 60 hours.
OYBike (UK, France, Chicago) OYBike system operated (and financially supported) by partner Veolia Transport. Bike stands have specialized keyboard and LCD display. Users log in with swipe card or call OYBike from a registered mobile phone to release bike. Bike can be returned to any rental station. iPhone app called myCycle shows bike/docking station availability in two cities. Nice, France network (dubbed Velobleu) launched July 2009 and now has 1,200 bikes at 175 stations. 15-year contract with city of Nice is for total of 1,750 bikes. £5 flat 1-day access fee, or £5/week or £18/year subscription plus usage fees starting after first 30 mins. £0.50 for 30-60 mins, £1 up to 2 hours, increasing to £5 for 4+ hours. 24 hour max. Optional theft insurance.
San Antonio Bike Share (San Antonio, Texas) System designed by B-Cycle. Bike World will operate and maintain system, with oversight by nonprofit San San Antonio Bike Share. Seed money from DOE and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stimulus funds. Users can sign up for membership online or at a kiosk. Access card required to unlock bikes, which can be returned to any other station around the city. Bikes will be outfitted with chips to track mileage, calories burned and carbon offsets. In Jun. 2010 city approved initial launch of 140 bikes at 14 stations. TBA, but similar Denver B-Cycle rates range from $40-65/year, plus usage fees after 30 mins.
Velib (Paris, France) Operated by French advertising firm JCDecaux in exchange for advertising rights to 1,600 outdoor displays. City gets subscription/user fees. AllBikesnow iPhone app by Zenexity. Swipe credit card to unlock bike from electronic docking station. Fleet of transport vehicles redistributes bikes. Mobile access via AllBikesnow iPhone app. Launched in 2007 with 20K bikes at 1,450 stations. AllBikesnow iPhone app launched Mar. 2010. JCDecaux reportedly invested $140M to set up the system and collects 80M euros/year from ad space. As of late 2009, JCDecaux paid $5.5M/year to Paris. Including start-up maintenance costs, bikes cost $3,500 apiece, NYT reports.
Velo’v (Lyon & Villeurbanne, France) JCDecaux’s Cyclocity system, operated in conjunction with city. Swipe card activates terminal for user to enter access code. User selects bike from list on touch screen, has 45 seconds to retrieve it. Bikes can be returned to any available docking station, where bike beeps and flashes lights once properly locked. Launched in 2005. Currently 4K bikes at 340 stations. AllBikesnow iPhone app launched Mar. 2010. €1/day or €3/week registration, plus usage fees: first 30 mins. free, €1 for next hour, €2 each hour thereafter. Discounts for long-term subscribers and public transit pass holders.

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