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Toronto Bike Share

How cheap dockless hire bikes are flooding the world
By Padraig BeltonTechnology of Business reporter BBC
  • 15 May 2018

Cycling around cities may have been pioneered by the Dutch, but a new high-tech way of hiring bicycles is bidding to bring a pedal power revolution to cities around the world.

The key innovation is the dockless hire bike. Found and unlocked with a few taps on a smartphone, they can be hired for an hour, day, or week - then locked up and left wherever the journey ends, rather than a special docking area.

These now make up the majority of the 18 million self-serve, public-use bikes around the world, in 1,608 cities.

That's up from just two million at the end of 2016, says Russell Meddin, co-author of an online world map of bike sharing.

Most of this growth has been in China, where two start-ups, rich with backing from the country's rival giant business groups, are battling for dominance on the streets.

Ofo is backed by the e-commerce giant Alibaba, while Tencent Holdings - Asia's richest company - is championing Mobike.

Alex Borwick, who lives between Shanghai and Beijing, was an early Mobike user. She calls bike sharing "much easier than having your own bike as you don't have to carry a lock and worry".

And she "definitely" has used the service more for being dockless, because it "means you can take a bike to where you need to go, not to a dock".

This duel saw some 1.5 million bikes pushed onto the streets of Shanghai alone. But the battle for market share left mountains of castaway bicycles in fields near Shanghai and places like Xiamen in the south-east.

"There were and are some bicycle mountains, but now there seem to be fewer now," says Jady Liu, an undergraduate student at Beijing Normal University.

In September, China's large cities prohibited companies from putting any new bikes onto the roads and since then the mountains have started to disappear.

Mobike has spread to 100 cities, including Manchester in 2017 and Berlin earlier this year.

"China's ones are the only truly global [bike sharing schemes]," says Mobike's Steve Pyer, a veteran of London's "Boris Bike" cycle hire scheme.

Cheaper infrastructure
Aside from the convenience of being able to leave it anywhere, dockless bikes are massively cheaper to run than these more familiar dock-based schemes.

A typical London bicycle dock with capacity for 25 bikes, costs about £100,000 to install and maintain, says Mr Pyer.

Moving the locking and payment technology from the dock to the bicycle means you can deploy them very quickly.

GPS sensors help riders locate available bikes on a smartphone app, and booking and unlocking is done by scanning a QR code or using RFID (radio frequency identification).

The onboard tech is powered by a battery charged by a dynamo as the cyclist pedals.

The success of the bikes in China has attracted investors' interest. Venture capital investment in dockless bike-share firms around the world reached $2.6bn (£1.9bn) in 2017, up from $290m in 2016, according to San Francisco business intelligence company Crunchbase.

Karan Girotra, a professor at Cornell University's new graduate programme, Cornell Tech, says there is a rush to be first into new markets, with firms betting that "once you get in there, you will acquire customers and drive other competitors out of business."

And while the largest traditional dock-based system in east China's Hangzhou has 65,000 bikes, the start-up Ofo operates 10 million, says Prof Girotra.

With traditional dock-based systems - like those in London and Paris - "people loved it but costs turned out to be higher, and advertising revenue turned out to be lower", he says.

Economies of scale bring down the cost per bike for the Chinese companies to "well under $100" rather than "$3,000 to $5,000" for dock-based systems, he adds.

Machine learning
Dockless bike riders don't always leave the bikes in the ideal places for other riders to start their journeys, so the scheme operators do have to move them around.

In Oslo, one start-up has been using machine learning - a sophisticated form of data analysis - to predict how to distribute bikes most efficiently.

"We try to maximise the number of trips each bike takes before we need to move it again," says Axel Bentsen, chief executive of Urban Infrastructure Partner, which runs Oslo's bike sharing programme.

"It's very difficult to do that manually, and machine learning is finding patterns and suggesting changes we wouldn't be able to come up with ourselves."

Car-sharing interest
Car-sharing companies are eager to branch into bike-sharing for passengers' short trips at the end of a journey.

In April, Uber bought New York-based start-up Jump Bikes, paying nearly $200m, according to Techcrunch.

Meanwhile Uber's rival in India, Ola, introduced a bike-sharing service late last year called Ola Pedal.

And Singapore-based Grab, another Uber rival, backed a dockless bike-sharing service called oBike last year.

Lucrative data
Prof Girotra says data about our biking habits could also prove quite lucrative.

"If you want to know where people are, they can turn off mobile phones, but with a bike you know precisely at which shop they've pulled up," explains Steven Fleming, founder of Australian and Dutch consultancy Cycle Space.

It may be a while before the rest of the world catches up with Amsterdam, where 66% of all trips are made by bike.

But it is the unlikely combination of venture capital and Chinese internet giants that could get us there sooner than we expect.

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View comments
That's a design problem with those systems. Sobi (well-designed) requires you to physically lock the bike to something. With Dropbike you just have to upload a picture of the bike to "prove" that you locked it somewhere.
I know not everyone here is downtown but multiple times I've seen those dockless orange bikes thrown onto the actual street at Yonge and Dundas - let alone littering sidewalks randomly. The dockless bike concept fails to account for the fact that we live in a big city.
That never happens in Hamilton, Ontario.

There is a severe penalty if you don't lock to a legal object.
I honestly think Hamilton has the most well thought-out model for bike share systems.

I wonder how a SoBi-like system would function in an area with much higher population density and demand (i.e. Toronto).
From Washington Post - and about Washington but .. (SEE: )

Less than a year after dockless bike-share systems arrived in the District, the colorful bikes are being stolen and vandalized in growing numbers, with one city official saying that some companies have lost up to 50 percent of their fleets.

The companies acknowledge that some users have figured out how to cheat their systems, such as using prepaid credit cards or taking bicycles that haven’t been properly locked by paying riders, but they contend the losses are not as high as 50 percent. Some of the companies say they are taking extra measures to improve their locking and GPS tracking systems.

“They have lost a lot of their bikes,” Kimberly Lucas, the city’s bike program specialist told a group of regional transportation officials at a dockless-bike-share workshop sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in May. She said companies have told city transportation officials that they have lost up to half of their fleets, which is significant because each company is allowed to operate a maximum of 400 bikes in the city. etc etc etc
I've noticed a few new stations popping up along King near Spadina.



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what annoys me so far is that the "infill" stations seem to be adding capacity at locations that are already serviced, instead of placing new stations in current service gaps.

The king/spadina one highlighted above is in Blue - while service gaps are in red. Note how the new station is right beside 2 existing stations.



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I think they put stations at King/Brant, King/Spadina and King/Charlotte because they were given the space as part of the King Street Pilot. I found the King/Charlotte Station useful when trying to get to MEC on the weekend.

We're less than 1/4 way through this round of expansion, so there's still a lot of opportunity to fill the gaps.
what annoys me so far is that the "infill" stations seem to be adding capacity at locations that are already serviced, instead of placing new stations in current service gaps.

The king/spadina one highlighted above is in Blue - while service gaps are in red. Note how the new station is right beside 2 existing stations.

View attachment 148868

These new stations were added because the space was available as a part of the King Street Pilot. The Adelaide location in your map is apparently coming after the shift of the bike lane to the north side. Parking will move to the south side and a BikeShare station will occupy one or more of those parking spots.
They've added new locations in the beaches- I've noticed them at Spruce Hill / Queen East, and along the MGT at Wineva and Maclean.