As we reported earlier this week, big ideas sometimes start out in small classrooms.
And SoBi – short for Social Bicycle – is just such a big idea. It started as a school project that grew into a Kickstarter campaign, which then grew into a real company located across dozens of U.S. cities, bringing its unique ideas on bike sharing to the masses.
And its ideas were unique – particularly when SoBi rolled on to the scene in 2011 – and the world of bike sharing was dominated by docking stations that more or less controlled the riders life with something SoBi’s Director of Strategic Development Colin Hughes calls “dockblocking.”
“It seemed like, more often than not, there was either no bike at the station near my house or no dock near my office — usually both. Sometimes, I’d ride to my office to find no available docks, forcing me to ride half way back home to leave the bike at nearest open dock and then walk many blocks. I’d arrive late to the office frustrated by a 45 minutes commute that should have only take 15 minutes at most. These “dockblocking” experiences are maddening, even for someone like me, and I love bike share. As a transportation researcher I also know that reliability is a key factor in any user’s modal choice.”
The data, Hughes noted, shows that a quarter of consumers won’t take the bus if it doesn’t stop close enough to their destination and won’t drive if they think they can’t get a parking space. The same mindset, Hughes noted, applies to bike sharing – customers who find themselves on a long and involved hunt for the right dock to part at will skip the search and call Uber to get where they are going.
And for traditional bike sharing – the “right” dock is all important. Because the “smart” part of the system is embedded in the fixed station. The user identifies him or herself and checks out a bike, which is unlocked so it can be removed from its station. After completion of the trip, the user returns the bike to a kiosk at the destination. These systems are not cheap – in the U.S. they run up to $5K D per bicycle to install and can take a few years to get up and running.
And apart from time and expense – Hughes noted – they just don’t serve the customer all that well.
“The world’s most established bike share systems offer a comparably poor level of service at peak hours: users in 7 different new York City neighborhoods have a 25 percent or higher chance of finding a full station at peak hour.”
So SoBi decided they could do it better – by making the bike itself smart, and able to parked (and locked) to any old “dumb” fixed object.
Instead of custom-built racks that people visit to pick up shared bikes, the bikes themselves come with built-in locks and GPS units.
A customer who wants a bike can look at the SoBi smartphone app to locate one, then unlock it by entering a PIN into a small computer on the back of the bicycle. At the end of the ride, users lock up the bike where they are, log off in app – and walk away. The next user who needs a bike in the area can pick it up and ride on.
It is more convenient, SoBI notes – and it is also a lot cheaper – SoBi’s cost per bicycle runs at about $1500 per bike – about 25 percent of the average cost associated with municipal bike sharing programs. And that Hughes noted – is before one factors in the cost of the vans. Because fixed dock bike sharing requires bikes be actually at their docks – bike redistribution, via van, is yet another cost associated with the older system.
And, he noted, there are also the costs to customer acquisition – because those hub-locked bikes are not widely available.
“For example, despite it’s popularity, NYC’s system only covers a relatively small portion of the city, leaving out many low-income neighborhoods. According to the New York City Department of Transportation covering all of the five boroughs would require an investment of as many as 80,000 bikes.”
For those keep score at home – that is around $400 million in bikes – though perhaps at scale he price might go down some.
So smarter, cheaper, more useable and more accessible – it is a small wonder that SoBi journey from student project in 2011 to full fledged company in 2017 was so rapid. And so influential – as the smart bike (as oppose do smart doc) method of social biking is catching on – particularly in China where as many as four companies are pursuing a similar approach to the segment.
And while the competition is heating up – the team at SoBi is ready for the race. Because the goal – they said, is to get more people riding, and they’re already well on their way