Smarter Bike Share Programs Coming to a Town Near You

People ride bicycles in Santa Monica, California. Credit: John Humble / Getty Images

Big bike-sharing networks across the world are mostly homogeneous: You’ve got your large, branded fleet of bikes and their docking stations strategically scattered across the city’s grid. For the most part, the popular bike-sharing model is achieving its goals — reducing traffic and helping contribute to fitter populations. In Denver, for example, more than 7,000 users of the fairly new B-Cycle bike share spared 80,602 pounds of carbon emissions, and riders torched a combined 3.4 million calories over the course of a year. The U.S. Department of Transportation, in a new report this month, counts a total of 2,655 bike-share stations operating in 65 U.S cities, with stops near bus and transit routes to increase multimodal trips.

Still, there are some issues with the traditional bike-share model. Some riders can’t climb big hills, leaving transportation planners to take note of a disproportionate number of bikes at down-slope docking stations. And other riders simply don’t want to arrive at work soaked in sweat after slogging uphill. Some towns simply aren’t big enough for a full-on bike share. 

Meanwhile, volunteers and traditional planners are disrupting the traditional model, and the next generation of bike sharing is emerging rapidly in the smaller cities. Here’s four ways these newcomers are taking a crack at bike-sharing:

Pedal-Assisted Biking: Battery-powered pedal assistance could be the next big innovation for bike shares, says Paul DeMaio, Principal of MetroBike, LLC, based in Washington, D.C. “It makes bike share more accessible to the general public, and to those who don’t want to ride because they’ll get too tired or get too sweaty and mess up their hair or clothing,” says DeMaio, who also runs the Bike-sharing blog. Solving the conundrum of sweaty commutes, Birmingham, Alabama, recently became the first bike-share program in North America to offer electric-pedal-assist bikes. A motor in the bikes help riders traverse over Birmingham’s hilliest streets with ease. In Alabama, 100 of the 400 bikes in the Zyp BikeShare have the electric-pedal assist, known as pedelec. Seattle's Pronto Cycle Share might want to take note.

Bike Libraries: Not quite a full-fledged bike share, “bike libraries” are a lower-cost alternative for smaller cities, or suburbs. With less-dense downtowns, it doesn’t make sense to have multiple docking stations. In Golden, Colorado, a gateway to the Rocky Mountains and the home of Coors Brewing Co., city officials just got the go-ahead for a pilot bike library program to launch in June. To start, they’ll have 40 bikes in the library, and, unlike normal bike shares, they’ll have a hodgepodge of bikes, including road bikes, mountain bikes, children’s bikes, and light-geared bikes to help conquer Golden’s hills.

Long-Term Rentals: College towns are experimenting with longer-term rentals, with bike libraries lending their bikes for weeks or months. At the University of California’s Santa Cruz campus, students can check out bikes for nine weeks. (Applicants must write an essay about why they need access to the free bike.) In Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, a volunteer-supported bike library takes a deposit from residents, and allows them to check out bikes for half a year. “Checking bikes out for six months at a time just makes sense when much of your population lives by the semester or academic calendar,” says Anne Duggan, a volunteer and board member with the Iowa City Bike Library. The city’s bike library started 12 years ago after residents noticed so many bikes were turning up in the trash. Now volunteers fix the donated or discarded bikes. The program has checked out about 1,500 bikes over the years.

‘Smart’ Bike Shares: Smartphone apps and GPS technology are also piquing interest in the bike-share movement, says DeMaio. The approach allows bike-share programs to pop up anywhere there are bike racks. Early to the game is SocialBicycles, or SoBi, that lets users find and reserve a bike from a web browser or mobile device. Once you make a reservation, you’ll get a personal PIN-code to unlock the bike. For those who like gold stars, the system lets you map your rides and generate statistics, like CO2 reduced, calories burned, and money saved by not driving. SoBi bike sharing has made debuts in Topeka, Santa Monica, and other cities throughout the country.