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The Future Of Bike Sharing: Becoming Part Of Public Transit

The operator of bike-share programs across the nation wants to make hopping on a bicycle a more seamless experience.

The Future Of Bike Sharing: Becoming Part Of Public Transit
[Top photo: Flickr user Andrew Nash]

Today, U.S. bike share members have to receive specialized key cards to unlock bikes within their city’s system. A New York Citi Bike member can’t use his or her membership while visiting, say, Boston or Chicago.

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In the future, bike share could operate seamlessly with a city’s transit system cards and also work across different cities, according to Jay Walder, CEO of the nation’s largest bike share operator, which changed its name to Motivate (formerly called Alta Bicycle Share) yesterday.

Flickr user Omar Rawlings

“It’s great that bike share started as a sort of independent thing. It got going quickly that way, the growth has been phenomenal. But it’s maturing and evolving,” says Walder, the former chairman of New York City’s MTA. “We want to see how it actually integrates into other forms of transportation.”

Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share started out with 400 bicycles in Washington, D.C., four years ago and now operates a total of 16,000 bicycles in 10 metro areas in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, reflecting the huge growth of the bike share model globally. But the company struggled to manage New York City’s Citi Bike, which became the nation’s largest bike share when it launched in 2013. A recent report cited technology glitches and maintenance failures, and others questioned whether the business model, which did not rely on any city funds, worked at its existing membership rate.

In October, new investors, including Equinox and the real estate firm Related Companies, acquired the company, moved its headquarters to Brooklyn, and brought on Walder (whose first hire was a vice president for technology, which the company somehow didn’t have before). In New York, they also announced Citi Bike would expand from 6,000 to 12,000 bikes by 2017–and raised membership fees.

Beyond fixing bicycles and docking stations and tweaking the basic user experience, Walder says he’s now focused on the bigger picture, especially improving connectivity for bike share users by giving them more real-time information and a better ability to report problems and contribute to the improving the system. “It’s about … leveraging a lot of the goodwill that exists with bike share and the way that people really want to help,” he says.

The company also is thinking about how bike share can become part of larger regional transit systems, integrating with existing transit system smart cards and eventually migrating everything to smartphones, says Walder. (Even New York City, where Metro Cards are extremely old-school compared to most cities’ chip-based cards, is looking at moving from swipes to smartphones by 2019).

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Flickr user Nathan Rosenquist

A New York City Citi Bike customer getting off a train in Washington, D.C., could one day hop on a Capital Bike Share bike easily, he hopes. As an early example, a new program Motivate is starting in Jersey City will allow commuters to use New York City’s Citi Bike once they cross the Hudson River. The company is also exploring potential national sponsors for future programs, Walder says, although the exact bike share model and pricing for different cities will never be one-size-fits-all.

Of Motivate’s predecessor company, Walder says it simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of growth, which happens often in nascent industries. The firm’s new name, Motivate, is supposed to imply bike share’s continued potential for expansion by connoting “action,” “energy,” and “movement.” Says Walder: “We hoped it was reflecting that this is a very young industry, and that we’re evolving.”

The next city where Motivate hopes to enter? Car-happy Los Angeles. Now, that should be a challenge.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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