Bike-Share Technology Takes Trial Run in Hoboken

As New York City rolls out its bike-share program, Hoboken, N.J., is debuting its own that could offer a new way cities -- both large and small -- can encourage bicycling.
by | May 27, 2013
Hoboken's bikes have a built-in "smart lock" that allows cyclists to park their bikes wherever they can lock them up, eliminating the need for docks. (Photo: Nicholas & Lence Communications)

As New York City debuts its new bike-share program -- a massive undertaking that will eventually include 10,000 bikes -- it's worth taking a look across the Hudson River at Hoboken, N.J. where a small-scale pilot involving just 50 bicycles could offer insight into a new way cities can encourage bicycling.

As it stands, most American bike-share programs operate basically the same way. Bicycles lock into docking stations throughout the city that residents and visitors alike can borrow by swiping a credit card at an electronic kiosks to release them. The bikes can be returned to any docking station in the city.

But the new Hoboken program -- a six-month pilot starts Saturday -- eliminates the need for docking stations. Instead, the bikes have a built-in "smart lock." Cyclists can park their bikes wherever they can lock them up, eliminating the need for docks. Customers find the bikes by using a smart phone app that tracks their location via on-board GPS, and when they want to use one, they enter a numeric PIN to release the lock.

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The system's low-price, along with its flexibility, makes it a win-win for communities considering bike share, says Chris Wogas, president of Bike and Roll New York City, which will operate the Hoboken pilot. (Wogas' company bid unsuccessfully for the bike share contract in New York).

The up-front infrastructure costs are lower, since there's no need for docks. The roll-out can happen quickly, since there's minimal infrastructure to install and no lengthy discussions about where to place the docks. And, perhaps most importantly, valuable sidewalk real estate isn't lost to the docks. Indeed, that could be a major selling point: The New York Times recently reported that while New Yorkers were generally enthusiastic about their bike-share system, the racks themselves have been controversial.

In Hoboken, 25 bikes will be traditional rental bikes that are typically used by tourists, and 25 will feature the new smart lock bikes.

A company called Social Bicycles, or SoBi, is behind the technology. CEO Ryan Rzepecki says they've already been used by a non-profit in Buffalo, N.Y., employees at the San Francisco International Airport, and a transit agency in Idaho. SoBi has won the contract to provide the technology for Tampa's new bike-share program, and it has another deal pending before the city council in Phoenix (here's a video of Rzepecki explaining the technology).

Rzepecki says his technology has an advantage that traditional bike-share lacks: the ability to be implemented in small communities, which aren't well-served by the existing model, which requires lots of docking stations. But, he argues, his model can be scaled up to serve larger cities too.

"(W)e feel this is the evolution of the technology," Rzepecki says, insisting that his product will eventually replace docks and kiosks as the predominant technology behind bike sharing.

Still, the more common dock model would seem to offers two major advantages over SoBi. Customers using bike share programs in places like Washington, D.C. have memorized the locations of docks throughout the city -- similar to the way transit users memorize subway and bus stop locations -- so grabbing a bike is easy. And because the bikes are housed at docks with electronic kiosks, even tourists who are new to bike-share can grab one with a simple swipe of a credit card.

Supporters of the SoBi technology don't view those as major impediments and bet that the ubiquity of smart phones will still make the experience of finding a bike easy. Meanwhile, Rzepecki says, his company has designed custom bike racks with electronic kiosks, so a hybrid system -- featuring some free-standing bikes for regulars, and kiosks for bike-share newcomers -- would be possible.

Additionally, because the Hoboken trial is small, customers will be encouraged to end their trips at one of five hub locations throughout the city, instead of just locking them up anywhere. That will ensure it's easy for customers to find a bike when they're ready to start a trip.

Those who return their bikes outside a hub could be assessed an extra fee -- the pricing is still in the works -- but when more bikes are added to the system, customers will have more flexible options for locking them up.

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