When a new bike share startup called Spin studied a year of use of Bay Area Bike Share, the numbers were surprisingly low: On an average day, each bike is used only 1.7 times. Bikes in Seattle and Boston systems are used only slightly more, roughly twice a day.
The problem, the startup believes, is that the bikes are tied to stations that may or may not be near where you actually have to go. In Spin’s system, which launched on March 10 in Austin, the bikes are stationless, so they can be parked anywhere there’s a bike rack. In theory, one of the bikes will always be minutes away.
“If I want to go to a train station, I can just pick up one of the bikes and go directly to my office building and just leave it outside, lock it up, and that’s it,” Spin founder Derrick Ko tells Co.Exist. “With station-based bike share, you’re limited to where the stations are. From a transportation standpoint, it’s very unnatural.”
The station model is also expensive for cities. On average, the cities in the Bay Area Bike Share program, for example, pay $5,249 a bike. Spin charges consumers directly, instead–a half-hour ride costs only a dollar–and argues that cities would be better served investing in infrastructure such as racks and better bike lanes rather than more bike share stations.
The stationless system is straightforward: the company aims to have enough bikes on the street that one will usually be in sight, and if you don’t see one, you can find it on an app. When you walk up to the bike, you scan it with your phone, get an unlock code, ride wherever you’re going, and then lock it to a rack and end the trip on the app.
Throughout the day and night, the company will use a team to reposition bikes so they don’t end up stranded in unpopular locations. “It is a ground operations game,” says Ko. “This is where we’ll make heavy use of technology to really optimize these operations to make them as efficient as possible, and achieve our goal of making sure that people are always minutes from a bike.”
Ko, who used to work at the ride-hailing company Lyft, believes that stationless bike share can solve the last-mile problem for transportation. “In San Francisco, if you tried taking a cab from the train station to the financial district, it takes you half an hour for a mile journey,” he says. “That’s inefficient. That wastes a lot of time, and it’s bad for the environment due to idling traffic. Even with all these ridesharing companies, cars are taken off the road, but demand for road space still exceeds supply. That’s where we see ourselves fitting in.”
Stationless bike share systems are popular in China, and a Chinese company attempted to launch in San Francisco in January, announcing that it planned to drop its bikes on city streets without permits. The city wasn’t happy, and is now threatening sanctions. “That’s not how you approach launching in the U.S.,” says Ko. “That works in China. It doesn’t work in the U.S.”
Spin, by contrast, plans to work closely with cities before each launch, and plans to help sponsor bike racks. “Ultimately, we are on the same side,” he says. “Cities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars adding and improving bike infrastructure. They just want people to use it. By offering people easier and cheap access to bikes, it will help the bike infrastructure pay off itself, it will reduce congestion, and it will reduce vehicle trips within downtown corridors. All of the benefits that biking around cities has been proven to show.”
The company plans to launch in additional cities later in 2017, including San Francisco.