Why small-scale bike sharing won’t work

By Felix Salmon
August 11, 2010
SoBi, short for social bicycles, is a gutsy startup trying to make bike-sharing more accessible by reducing the up-front infrastructure costs. Don't create dedicated parking spaces: allow bikes to be parked anywhere. Don't commission custom bicycles: design a gizmo which attaches easily to any bike instead. And store information in the cloud, allowing what I think is the smartest new idea of all: rather than paying contractors to move hundreds of bicycles every night from where they're not wanted to where they are wanted, simply pay the bike riders themselves a bonus of a buck or two if they leave the bike in an area where they're in high demand.

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SoBi, short for social bicycles, is a gutsy startup trying to make bike-sharing more accessible by reducing the up-front infrastructure costs. Don’t create dedicated parking spaces: allow bikes to be parked anywhere. Don’t commission custom bicycles: design a gizmo which attaches easily to any bike instead. And store information in the cloud, allowing what I think is the smartest new idea of all: rather than paying contractors to move hundreds of bicycles every night from where they’re not wanted to where they are wanted, simply pay the bike riders themselves a bonus of a buck or two if they leave the bike in an area where they’re in high demand.

But I still don’t think this’ll work, and not just because SoBi was silly enough to demonstrate their first real-life prototype on a fixed-gear bike with no rear brake. Something less suitable for sharing can hardly be imagined. People come in a large range of shapes and sizes, and need to be able to adjust their bikes easily when they find them: that’s easier said than done. Standardized bikes also make repairs a great deal easier and cheaper: being able to install this system on any old bike is not much of an advantage, really. And more generally, it’s pretty hard to find suitable bike parking if your only option for locking the bike is to find a rack which you can attach the bike to from one position over the real wheel.

The big problem, however, is in the ongoing costs of running the system — finding broken bikes, repairing those bikes, maintaining the information infrastructure, etc etc. Where bike sharing exists already, in cities like Paris, Munich, and now London, it’s institutionalized with a lot of corporate sponsorship and advertising: a very large chunk of money in those cities, for instance, has come from JCDecaux, Deutsche Bahn, and Barclays, respectively. Big corporations like that want standardization and predictability and on-message branding: they don’t want to be associated with users locking their bikes illegally to any old railing or pole, irritating merchants and pedestrians.

Bike sharing is something best done city-wide, at large expense, by a big corporation risking its reputation to at least some extent, with a lot of public money and support as well. Small local schemes are likely to start with great enthusiasm and then run out of steam or money pretty quickly, no matter how clever they seem. I look forward to a big public scheme paying its users for returning bikes to high-demand areas. But beyond that I’m not very optimistic about SoBi.

Update: SoBi’s founder, Ryan Rzepecki, responds in the comments:

1. We have no intention of launching a SoBi system using fixed gear bicycles. That pic is of a foam model attached to our industrial designer’s bike with a clothes hanger. It wasn’t meant to be representative of the actual bike or mount.

2. We intend to launch city-wide systems with government support and major sponsorship. This isn’t a peer-to-peer or grass-roots solution. I think sponsors will particularly appreciate the ability to connect to users with opt-in real-time promotions and advertising.

3. We are developing advanced fleet management tools for tracking not only the position of the bikes, but their repair schedule and other information to help system administrators.

4. Users must lock to approved racks – parking that is illegal or offensive will be flagged and the most recent user can be held accountable.

5. The idea is not to create a mismatched fleet of old beater bikes, but to allow each city to choose a bike that is right for their needs given the local conditions and budget.

6. Yes, suitable bike parking is a problem in most American cities. By choosing the SoBi system, a city can expand parking opportunities for all cyclists by installing new racks. These racks benefit not only bike share bikes, but private bikes as well.

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Comments
4 comments so far

You were in the wilds when this bike sharing story hit, Salmon.

http://www.denverpost.com/election2010/c i_15673894

You’re clearly not aware that bikesharing is in fact a Communist plot.

Posted by ottorock | Report as abusive

Hi Felix,

I just wanted to clarify a few things.

1. We have no intention of launching a SoBi system using fixed gear bicycles. That pic is of a foam model attached to our industrial designer’s bike with a clothes hanger. It wasn’t meant to be representative of the actual bike or mount.

2. We intend to launch city-wide systems with government support and major sponsorship. This isn’t a peer-to-peer or grass-roots solution. I think sponsors will particularly appreciate the ability to connect to users with opt-in real-time promotions and advertising.

3. We are developing advanced fleet management tools for tracking not only the position of the bikes, but their repair schedule and other information to help system administrators.

4. Users must lock to approved racks – parking that is illegal or offensive will be flagged and the most recent user can be held accountable.

5. The idea is not to create a mismatched fleet of old beater bikes, but to allow each city to choose a bike that is right for their needs given the local conditions and budget.

6. Yes, suitable bike parking is a problem in most American cities. By choosing the SoBi system, a city can expand parking opportunities for all cyclists by installing new racks. These racks benefit not only bike share bikes, but private bikes as well.

Thank you for covering the story and allowing me to make these clarifications!

Ryan Rzepecki
Founder/CEO SoBi

Posted by SoBi | Report as abusive

Hi Felix,

Please give me the opportunity to add this comment to your post, I’d like to clarify a few things.

1. We have no intention of launching a SoBi system using fixed gear bicycles. That pic is of a foam model attached to our industrial designer’s bike with a clothes hanger. It wasn’t meant to be representative of the actual bike or mount.

2. We intend to launch city-wide systems with government support and major sponsorship. This isn’t a peer-to-peer or grass-roots solution. I think sponsors will particularly appreciate the ability to connect to users with opt-in real-time promotions and advertising.

3. We are developing advanced fleet management tools for tracking not only the position of the bikes, but their repair schedule and other information to help system administrators.

4. Users must lock to approved racks – parking that is illegal or offensive will be flagged and the most recent user can be held accountable.

5. The idea is not to create a mismatched fleet of old beater bikes, but to allow each city to choose a bike that is right for their needs given the local conditions and budget.

6. Yes, suitable bike parking is a problem in most American cities. By choosing the SoBi system, a city can expand parking opportunities for all cyclists by installing new racks. These racks benefit not only bike share bikes, but private bikes as well.

Thank you for covering the story and allowing me to make these clarifications!

Ryan Rzepecki
Founder/CEO SoBi

Posted by SoBi | Report as abusive

It seems like finding broken bikes and fixing them would be much easier if each had a GPS system on board. A member could file a trouble report from his/her smartphone when a bike has a problem.

Mr. Rzepecki, I recommend that you put a bar-code or some other smartphone readable unique code on each bike to make it easy to send trouble reports. Take a photo of the barcode, check the appropriate problem, and send.

In regards to the bikes, no sane person would put a fixie into bike-sharing service. The bikes need to be sturdy, easily adjusted bikes. But I see nothing in the SoBi model that obviates the use of appropriate bikes.

Go SoBi!

Posted by mharrigan | Report as abusive
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