Photo by sam_churchill on Flickr.

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?

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.

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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 Lab’s Transit Tech project and is an advocate for open transportation data.