Bikesharing has existed for a century, but tech is making it massive

Bikeshare is a simple concept that has been comparatively hard to implement. The basic idea is easy: there’s a supply of bikes around town, and anyone can take one and use it. When the ride is over, the rider returns the bike to the place where they picked it up, to a designated rack, or they just leave it wherever they happen to be for the next person to use.

Shared bicycle systems of various kinds have been around for over 100 years, but until recently logistical and social issues have doomed almost all idealistic bike sharing efforts all over the world. Specifically, free bikes have been stolen and vandalized so frequently that bikeshare operators soon ran out of money and patience.

Worldwide, China has far more bikeshare opportunities than most countries, but they also have the most problems. The Chinese government has encouraged entrepreneurship in the bikeshare space, to help reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. In Beijing today, there are 15 different bikeshare companies fielding an estimated 2.35 million bicycles. The city of Guangzhou has 700,000 bikes in service, accounting for about 4 million trips per day.

However, the saturation of bicycles in some Chinese urban centers makes sidewalks and mass transit stations impassable. Chinese bikeshare users often abandon bikes in the street or on the sidewalk. Thousands of bikes have been seized and impounded by local authorities in an effort to keep Chinese cities from being buried in bikes.

European and American cities have also had their struggles, with dozens of bikeshare programs started and abandoned over the years. But that’s changing now, courtesy of the same technology that enables unattended short-term car rentals.


Motivate is the market leader in commercial bikeshare systems. The company currently operates bikeshare fleets in Boston, Chattanooga, Chicago, Columbus, Jersey City, New York, Portland, Washington D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area.

To keep shared bikes under any kind of control, companies have to make sure the riders have skin in the game. Accountability is achieved through identification and financial responsibility. That’s why riders typically need a credit card and a smartphone app, or at least a verified member number, to rent a bike in a modern system.

When an available bike has been located, the rider reserves the bike and unlocks it either with the phone app, a card swipe, or an access code for that particular bike. The rider then uses the bike and returns it to any dock or approved alternate location and re-locks the bike. The rider is billed for the time used, plus a fee of a dollar or two if the bike is not returned to a docking station. The rider is responsible for damage to the bike, or for the full cost of the bike if it’s lost or stolen during the ride.


Portland, Oregon had a free bikeshare program called Yellow Bike in the 1990s. As in many other communities, the rate of theft and vandalism quickly killed Portland’s experiment. Now bikeshare is back on Portland streets, this time in a public-private partnership called Biketown. Biketown is a joint project of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, Nike, and Motivate.

“Theft is not a problem for us now,” says Tom Rousculp, Marketing Manager of Biketown. “We have a thousand bikes in our system. Over the year and a half that we’ve been operating, there are three bikes that we can’t find.”

It’s not that people in Oregon are more trustworthy now than they were 20 years ago. It’s technology.

“The real reason is that they all have GPS on them,” Rousculp reveals. “Every bike has LoJack because we need to know where it is. Riders can see where available bikes are locked through our app. But through the back end, we can see where every bike is in real time. We’ll actually get an alert if a bike has been out for longer than three hours on a single trip. We just need to know if the user has been taking a long ride around town or something.”

Having solved the big problems of theft and vandalism, Biketown also has to deal with the logistical challenges of a successful bikeshare program.

“In the morning, people are riding in from the outskirts of downtown into the central city and you get the bikes piling up around these stations or around these transportation nodes,” Rousculp explains. “We have a group of employees whose job it is to rebalance the system. They go down in the morning and pick up the bikes and bring them back to the outlying stations. They make sure any given station is typically about half full. That way there is always a bike to take and always space for a bike to be left. Those are the big ongoing operational pieces that we do on a day-to-day basis.”

Part of rebalancing the system is picking up bikes that have been left away from Biketown docks.

“We have docking stations but our system allows you to lock to a bike rack or a stop sign, or to any kind of fixed object throughout the system area. That allows you the flexibility to not have to go to a Biketown station. There’s a $2 fee associated with parking away from a station in most areas of the city. But if you return a bike that was parked away from a dock, you get a $1 credit. That helps rebalance the system for us and we reward you for it.”

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