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Are smarter bikes in the future for bike sharing?

Capital Bikeshare has been a huge success since its debut in 2010, but its system, which provides simple, sturdy bikes backed by sophisticated technology at stations, is no longer the only option. Might some cities, suburban jurisdictions, or even Capital Bikeshare in the future, consider a new technology: smarter bikes?

Photo by sam_churchill on Flickr.

Like many other cities with mature and successful bike sharing systems, Capital Bikeshare requires bikes to dock at stations when not in use. Each station has a kiosk that communicates wirelessly to track bikes.

Some next-generation bike sharing systems are trying out bikes with electronics on board, instead of at the station. These bikes can then dock at a larger number of stations or, in some cases, even be locked anywhere.

Currently, Capital Bikeshare's stations and kiosks serve the following functions:

  1. Unlock in response to member keys and credit cards
  2. Provide a secure locking point to deter theft
  3. Transmit usage and billing information
  4. Identify a known place to find bikes (by users or the bike sharing agency)
  5. Advertise for the system (and other commercial sponsors)
  6. Less commonly used functions, such as reporting malfunctions and extending reservations when dockblocked
Instead of putting these features in the station kiosks, they could all become part of the bikes themselves. The SoBi (Social Bicycles) system pictured above shows how this could work. A box attached to the bicycle contains a lock, a GPS, and wireless communication with a central computer. It unlocks in response to a rider's mobile phone or PIN code. When a rider reaches a destination, he or she locks the bike, and the station notifies the central computer.

It's easy to envision other potential features, such as a credit card reader for tourist use, or a button for reporting malfunctions. The box is solar-powered, like Capital Bikeshare stations, but could also be pedal powered.

The first system to use smart shared bikes like this is Call a Bike, still widely used in German cities, including Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich. As its name implies, a user must phone before each trip for a bike's unlocking code, then after each trip, phone again with the bike's cross street to confirm return.

However, without designated stations or accurate location information, it can be inconvenient to find a bike, and the system does not encourage use by tourists. The weBike system at the University of Maryland uses text messaging instead of phoning, but also requires bikes to be returned to fixed docks.

Currently, two "next generation" bike sharing systems in the US are going further by putting all the intelligence in the bike. These systems are viaCycle, currently operating at a small scale at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and Social Bicycles, a startup in New York.

In each of these systems, vehicles themselves communicate their locations to a central server, and users can find them using a website or mobile apps. A user unlocks a bike using his or her mobile phone and can then lock it anywhere.

These systems are analogous to the car2go car sharing system, in which cars don't have designated spaces and can be parked in any legal street location.

Smart bike systems promise a significant cost savings versus current generation systems with docks and kiosks. Adding 12 docks to an existing station costs about $13,000, while a new 12-dock station with a kiosk costs about $36,000. This cost difference is leading DDOT to expand many stations instead of adding new ones in between, where they'd be more useful but also more costly.

Social Bicycles founder Ryan Rzepecki claims that 2-4 times more smart bikes could be deployed for the same cost as current generation kiosk systems. Bike racks could also go almost anywhere, without the linear space and solar requirements of current docks.

Flexibility has advantages and disadvantages

Smart bike systems largely solve the dockblocking problem at full stations because users can lock their bike at any safe location, not just at docks.

But is it really a good idea to be able to dock bikes anywhere? It would be difficult to prevent some people from abusing the privilege, such as locking bikes in inaccessible locations (e.g., garages, courtyards, and behind security barriers). Additionally, bikes might accumulate in remote or infrequently used locations, as some have reported happening with car2go. Theft and vandalism could also become a problem; Capital Bikeshare has relatively low loss rates, thanks in part to its sturdy docks in well-traveled locations.

In addition, smart bikes do not solve the problem of empty stations, and can even add difficulty to the process of finding a bike. Bike sharing members often plan around expecting to find a certain number of bikes at a station because it makes for a convenient routine, or because they need several bikes at once for a group trip. A more flexible system would create more uncertainty and make users more reliant on smartphones, which are not available to everyone.

In fact, DDOT officials have cited predictability as a major reason they are enlarging stations: users find it particularly frustrating to find an empty or full station, so they would rather have fewer stations that are more often usable than more conveniently located, closely-spaced stations.

To make bike locations more predictable, Social Bicycles has proposed a "virtual station" concept, in which a station is just a geographic area on a map. Bikes could incur higher fees depending on how far riders park them from a virtual station. This solution gives users the flexibility to park anywhere, but ensures that most bikes will return to designated stations.

Would we use this here?

Several jurisdictions in our region are considering their own bike sharing systems. Some, fairly distant from DC and Arlington, primarily expect users to take short trips inside their systems instead of trips to and from the core.

There are many reasons for jurisdictions to join the current Capital Bikeshare network, like savings from economies of scale, and the convenience for users being able to get a bike anywhere within the network. However, systems less reliant on docks could be more cost-effective in lower-density suburban areas, where stations will be smaller and the cost of station kiosks will be a large fraction of the total budget.

Meanwhile, Capital Bikeshare is a huge success with its current, proven technology. Already, its stations are far cheaper to install and move than its predecessor system, SmartBike. Capital Bikeshare shouldn't change just as it's hitting its stride. In time, we might even see it transition toward technologies that further reduce the burden of stations.

Matt Caywood is a DC resident and co-founder and CEO of TransitScreen, which brings live transit information displays into public spaces all over the world. He co-founded Mobility Labís Transit Tech project and is an advocate for open transportation data. 


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CaBi has a great system and the semi-permanent structures of bike docks are great for residents, tourists, businesses surrounding each station and the infrastructure in between each station.

As you stated, SoBi-style sharing is not at all friendly to tourists and prime for abuse. Because they can be parked in semi-private or obscure locations, thus making it easier for the user to keep control of, the "sharing" factor is lessoned.

Also, there is no sense of permanance with SoBi, unlike the sleek CaBi stations. What will encourage cities or suburbs to build the requsite infrastructure to support cycling is bikes are scattered through the region? At least for planners, it's easy to see point A to point B with CaBi.

And costs for stations are expected to go down as CaBi introduces coporate-sponsored stations and advertising.

by cmc on Apr 30, 2012 1:19 pm • linkreport

Definitely seems like this would threaten the tourist-friendliness of the system, which is a major source of operating subsidy. Random bikes locked up around the region -- with locations that can only be determined by smartphone / web access seems unlikely to inspire users to give it a try the way that the stations do.

Adding complexity to the bikes themselves may also threaten bike reliability, while also complicating CaBi's ability to maintain them.

I couldn't tell from the description whether there is a physical lock involved with SoBi, or just some sort of electronic wheel lock. One of the appealing elements of using CaBi vs. a personal bike is the ability to forego the process of physically locking and unlocking the bike.

by Arl Fan on Apr 30, 2012 2:18 pm • linkreport

I'd see a SoBi system as a small complementary system to CaBi rather than a replacement, give the disadvantages noted above. Or maybe it would be good for a small area where everyone knows their way around, like a university campus.

Any transportation system in DC that's not tourist friendly is going to have a tough time.

by Falls Church on Apr 30, 2012 2:27 pm • linkreport

No more weight on the bikes, please! They're heavy enough without onboard lock/cable, solar panels and electronics. I like the CaBi system as it is, with visible docking stations, maps for user and passerby wayfinding, phone number to call for assistance, etc. Just having bikes locked up willy-nilly at "virtual stations" would also be more visual clutter we don;t need, versus the tidy, photogenic docking stations (just look at how many ohotos of them appear on Flickr).

by MrTinDC on Apr 30, 2012 2:28 pm • linkreport

@Arl Fan: it's a physical lock, otherwise the bikes wouldn't be secure.

One of the appealing elements of having a personal bike is being able to lock it up and run a quick errand. A smart bike can do that, CaBi requires a bit more effort.

by Matt Caywood on Apr 30, 2012 2:30 pm • linkreport

One of the appealing elements of having a personal bike is being able to lock it up and run a quick errand. A smart bike can do that, CaBi requires a bit more effort.

This is why CaBi's should have a lock/cable on them. Obviously, you can bring your own lock if you're able to plan ahead but that's not always possible.

by Falls Church on Apr 30, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

ViaCycle already does virtual stations, and basically emulates the capital Bikeshare style systems in use, providing more predictability.

This is not necessary, but we find it works better, even at smaller scales. This could change with increasing smartphone usage, but until then, we want to make sure you don't need a smartphone to use a bike.

by sid on Apr 30, 2012 2:44 pm • linkreport

Hi Matt,

CEO of viaCycle here - thanks for the well-informed article, and for the mention.

viaCycle actually developed and implemented the "virtual station" concept at our Georgia Tech program, where it's been working well for the past six months. Rather than have them be a loosely defined group of geographic zones, we simply designate normal bike racks as stations, and place signage there. Users can take our bikes where they wish, but must eventually return to a station in order to end their trip. Just like CaBi, you incur usage fees for all time away from a station, so it discourages hoarding.

In practice, this gives the same convenience of knowing where to find a bike and almost the same level of organization, but cities can install $500 racks (or use existing ones) instead of $40,000 kiosks. Plus, even if a rack is full, you can usually squeeze in another bike or two, rather than having to hunt for the nearest open dock. CaBi works well for DC, but smaller cities and universities can benefit from a more flexible infrastructure.

If anyone wants to know more, please feel free to contact us via our website!

Thanks again,

by Kyle Azevedo on Apr 30, 2012 2:46 pm • linkreport

It seems that SoBi type systems would work well on large college campuses and their surrounding college towns (such as UMD rather than GWU). Infrastructure tends to be more accommodating to bikes and bicycle usage and as @Falls Church described, everyone already knows their way around. Also, most colleges don't have to worry about the tourism sector.

by cmc on Apr 30, 2012 2:57 pm • linkreport

@cmc, MrTinDC:

A smart bike system can still have stations, and in an urban area one probably would. It's just much cheaper to do stations without the kiosks.

So well-designed racks, advertising to pay back installation cost, and maps are all still likely part of the system.

by Matt Caywood on Apr 30, 2012 3:15 pm • linkreport

I think you allude to this but how would one rebalance the system? Until a system can be devised that is self-balancing I think we need to have defined stations from which to collect and redistribute the bikes.

by JeffB on Apr 30, 2012 3:18 pm • linkreport

Also, how would you report a damaged bike? With CaBi it's a simple as pressing the red button and turning the seat around. I'm a daily CaBi user and really appreciate the system as it is now. Not only does it work well for commuters like me, it's exceptionally tourist-friendly. The cost of docking stations is a pittance compared to bus garages, Metro stations, and streetcar tracks, so let's keep that in perspective. I greatly appreciate the permanence and tidiness of the existing docking stations. they show off the bikes to be a clean and user-friendly real transportation option, as oppsed to a cheapo bike rack crammed with a mix of bikeshare and individually owned bikes, in various states of repair (which has that hippie/college look).

by MrTinDC on Apr 30, 2012 5:04 pm • linkreport

@MrTinDC: The bikes themselves (or a mobile app) would have a button for reporting a malfunction. You could still turn the seat around if you want, although that's more of a cultural norm :)

Also, someone should design a rack that will allow smart-bikes, fixies, and rebuilt 1970s Italian racing bikes, while rejecting junk bikes.

Seriously, I agree that bike sharing (plus bike infrastructure) is probably the most efficient and cost-effective transportation improvement available to cities. But money's never unlimited, and if you could double the number of bikes in the system at the same cost, wouldn't you?

by Matt Caywood on Apr 30, 2012 8:31 pm • linkreport

DB's Call-A-Bike is experimenting with a few techniques that blur the boundaries between the "fix" and "flex" typologies -- with things like virtual docks equipped with radio-activated locks -- but seeing as they've just started launching said hybrid systems we don't yet have a good read on how well it works. Another key selling point with Call-A-Bike is that the system is up and running in many cities throughout Germany, so travelers can use the system wherever they go. That said, the usage numbers that they see are pretty disappointing compared to what fixed-point systems get, which is why they're transitioning toward a fixed system.

I'd also hope that any "flex" system would still require good parameters on how to lock up when done, so that the bikes don't just end up in the river or in someone's backyard. Car2Go, for instance, requires that cars be parked in certain kinds of street spaces, and since their system doesn't rebalance, I've noticed that there are often zero cars available in the entire central city.

by Payton on Apr 30, 2012 9:57 pm • linkreport

@Matt Caywood
But money's never unlimited, and if you could double the number of bikes in the system at the same cost, wouldn't you?

You can buy more bikes with this system for sure. But from what I have read about where it has been implemented in Germany, the bikes do not get used as much as the fixed systems do. Which makes sense; the bikes are not as noticeable as a system to someone who doesn't know anything about them. Bikeshare stations are ultra-visible. And for some users the "park it anywhere" system might actually be discouraging.

I also like the idea of bikeshare as a gateway to getting your own bike (which does not mean not using bikeshare but using both). Flex systems probably don't encourage that as much.

by MLD on May 1, 2012 8:20 am • linkreport

Another thing I really like about the fixed point-to-point bikeshare system with docking stations is the ability to look up your statistics - how far you've ridden, how many calories burned, etc. Every few days, I check the CaBi website and see how fast I've been going, etc. Of course, you could take a circuitous route to your destination, but for commuting to work I strive to take the shortest distance possible.

by MrTinDC on May 1, 2012 9:06 am • linkreport

@Matt Caywood

Great point about creating stations that look similar without kiosks. In practice, these smart bike systems can look and feel almost exactly the same as a fixed station model. We're simply moving the technology from ground-based infrastructure to your cell phone and the bike, just as many other dedicated devices have been replaced with mobile technology. We also receive GPS position data from the bikes, which can be used for the same calorie tracking functions and to provide redistribution incentives.

We like CaBi a lot and think it works well for DC - but different locations need different solutions.

by Kyle on May 1, 2012 9:40 am • linkreport

Matt, great article.

@JeffB Besides the extremely high cost, the biggest problem with CaBi and other station-based system is the constant need for redistribution. I was in London recently, and over half the stations were either completely empty or completely full.

With Social Bicycles, our 'virtual hubs' give us all the benefits of a station-based system, plus the ability to lock outside of a hub. We won't completely eliminate the need for redistribution, but we can greatly reduce it through an incentive system.

If a user locks up inside a hub, they pay no additional fees. If they lock up outside a hub, they pay a small fee. This fee gets posted back to the map, and the next user to return the bike to a hub that needs a bike gets a credit. We hope this system will reduce the amount of redistribution necessary while also allowing people to lock up in areas outside hubs.

@MrTinDC - our bikes have a repair button that you can press if there is an issue, and you will receive a follow-up email where you can describe the damage. Also, we will have more advanced stats than CaBi. They only provide point to point data, we have true GPS routes.

by Ryan Rzepecki on May 1, 2012 10:13 am • linkreport

Thanks everyone for the comments. Two additions and clarifications:

1. As Payton points out, stationless bike-sharing is called "flex" by Call A Bike (as opposed to "fix"ed stations). But I see it, the fundamental point isn't the presence or absence of stations ("fix or flex"), it's whether the bikes are smart and carry locks. If you have a smart bike, you have a wide range of options ranging from kioskless stations ("virtual stations") to no stations at all (locking to street furniture), and can choose whatever balance works best for your system. This adaptability is a real strength of smart-bike systems.

2. Paul DeMaio at Metrobike points to a Spanish bikesharing system, "Onroll" by Domoblue, that lets you unlock bikes with text messaging. The unlocking feature appears to be part of the dock, not on the bike, so there's no kiosk. It's in almost 40 cities but not major Spanish tourist cities, so it's not as well known as Call a Bike.

by Matt Caywood on May 1, 2012 10:21 am • linkreport

Matt: A great series of comments on the "flexibility" and "cost" of bike-sharing systems as well as the issues of
"orderliness" of parking and bike maintenance.
You have created space for considering evolution in bike share technology and for the defining of possible enhancements.

by Don Vanouse on May 1, 2012 5:27 pm • linkreport

Hi Matt - interesting article. I'm a co-founder and marketing director for weBike so glad to hear you're taking interest in station-less bike sharing!

I wanted to make a correction to your article - you wrote that weBike is tied to fixed docks, which is incorrect. Our system is built so users can rent and return bikes to any bike rack in a community using their phones.

The system profiled in the City Fix article was customized to the specific apartment complex, which wanted their residents to renturn all the bikes to the rack in their garage to protect them from theft and weather. Users had access to the bikes for 24 hours at one time, so they could commute to and from campus. While they had the bike out, they could lock it up to any rack in the community.

We are launching a new system this coming fall with a campus in Pennsylvania, and this system will be a totally de-centralized model - much like SoBi and ViaCycle, where you can lock a bike anywhere.

Happy to provide more insight if you are interested -


Thanks again for your interest - hope you have a better pictu

by Allie on May 4, 2012 6:01 pm • linkreport

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