SoBi- a smartphone based bike sharing system

Commuter, Concept, Utility 16 20

Soicial Bicycle (SoBi) bike share Around this time last year, I posted the Etta bike, a semi-recumbent city bike that Nick Foley designed as his senior thesis project at Pratt. Since then, Nick graduated and started working with the design team at the bike-sharing company Social Bicycles. Nick explains that Social Bicycles (SoBi) is a bike-sharing system that uses “smart” bikes rather than “smart” stations. “Each bike has an onboard GPS, cellular transmitter, and electronic lock that allow people to find and unlock bikes using their smartphones.” I think it’s a very interesting idea, and the idea of eliminating the fixed docking stations in a bike share system promises to reduce the overall system cost (the bikes can also be unlocked by entering a user’s PIN number using the keypad on the bike itself).

SoBi bike share central hubRight now, the SoBi team is seeking funding on Kickstarter, and you can find out more about the concept there. Also, check out a recent post at Designboom for more information about the project and the design of the bike that Nick has been working on. Regarding the the bike itself, Nick explains:

The direction we chose for our bicycle was something of a classic design, guided by a modern utilitarianism. The classic ‘step-through’ geometry is a time-tested way of making a bicycle easy to mount and dismount for people of any level of flexibility. The shaft drive, which may seem like a novelty or innovation, is actually a well-established technology perfectly suited for bike-sharing applications, where the small amount of added weight is negligible considering to the higher durability and cleanliness compared to a chain and chainguard.

Soicail bike rear control panelThe Social Bikes team plans to have the first 60 prototype bikes ready this fall, and a full working share system ready to implement early next year. The SoBi bike, with a GPS lock and P2P sharing capability, may also be available as a consumer product. I am looking forward to hearing more about this project as it develops, and I will be sure to keep you updated.

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16 Comments

  1. tony July 5, 2011 at 1:20 pm -  Reply

    Very niceee ! :)

  2. Impossibly Stupid July 5, 2011 at 6:16 pm -  Reply

    The overall system is bound to fail, for numerous reasons that should be all-too-obvious, but the bike itself isn’t half bad. Concepts are often deceptive, though, so I wonder how reasonable the cost of such a bike would be given such a limited run.

    • nicolas July 6, 2011 at 4:03 am -  Reply

      The concept isn’t doomed, it’s just pretty much lifted from Deutsche Bahn’s Call-a-Bike, plus some interesting choices (nice map/etc. interface, and the shaft drive, though I think there’s probably a reason all the bikeshares in the world went with chains + chainguards + gear hubs: cost and ease of maintenance) and some designified features (solar).

      I’ve actually never used call-a-bike, because it’s not very tourist-friendly and I’m not German.

      • Russell July 6, 2011 at 8:49 am -  Reply

        Not to speak to the merits of the Social Bikes concept, but to the use of shaft drive and the Call-a-Bike system.
        There are many bike share programs that use bikes with shaft drive. They are, to name a few, the Oybike-Veloway systems of the UK and France, the Smoove systems of France, the Urbike systems in Spain and some of the Clear Channel Systems of France and Italy. It is because of the excessive chain wear that these systems use shaft drive.
        Call-a-bike and NextBike, another German bike share company, have used a telephone unlock and location method of bike share for years. Recently, both companies have updated their newer systems to fixed docking stations with both credit card kiosk and mobile phone capabilities. This has also made it easier for occaisional users (such as tourist) to use bike share.

      • James Thomas July 6, 2011 at 9:58 am -  Reply

        It is a similar idea to Call-a-Bike, but I don’t believe that system is GPS based. I think that ability to locate a bike nearby is one of the nicest features with this system.

        • Impossibly Stupid July 6, 2011 at 12:08 pm -  Reply

          No, see, this is why it is doomed to failure; it is rather surprising that the people involved aren’t thinking through the day-to-day use of the system. Whatever convenience there is in having a bike “nearby” is completely eliminated by the relative hassle in trying to track down bikes that aren’t located at any central station.

          For example, I get a bike to go from A to B. I’m done at B, but my bike got “shared” out from under me. Let’s pretend I have a cell phone to actually locate other bikes and find 3 that are spread out in the surrounding 2 blocks. I go to the closest one and find out that someone decided to put on their own lock to prevent it from being taken. Now I have to walk nearly 2 blocks to the next closest one, only to find out it has an unreported mechanical problem. Yet another long walk to the next one, which luckily works, and finally I can bike somewhere. How does that beat a centrally located station with many bikes to choose from?

          • James Thomas July 6, 2011 at 12:21 pm -  Reply

            I am not sure exactly how the system will work, but that concern should be pretty easy to overcome. If a user rides the bike to point B and keeps it reserved in the system, it shouldn’t show up to other users looking for a nearby bike until the rider indicates that he or she is finished with it. Obviously there would have to be a time limit, but I think that an hour or two could cover most errands and short trips.

            Also, I think there is an incentive to return the bikes to a central station (basically just a rack since the locking system is built into the bike). From what I understand, if a user chooses to leave the bike somewhere else they will pay a bit more. That would mean that bikes would usually be available at the predetermined locations, but also elsewhere around the town.

            • Impossibly Stupid July 6, 2011 at 2:03 pm - 

              It’s easy to handwave away all difficulties with concepts, but doing so without any real planning is likely to end up in failure. How many people are expected to be sharing this system of 60 bikes (each costing, what, about $1000?) and what are they expected to pay as a reasonable rate? Even if you can pretend that reserved use of 2h/day can be evenly spread, that means that 12 people can use each bike daily, making 720 supported members. For the bike costs alone, that breaks down to about $84 per person, never mind the support costs for running the program. So, realistically, you’re probably looking at at least 4 times that amount.

              And what do you get for that money? A bike that *might* be available nearby? That’s not an easy sell when the alternative in most people’s minds is owning a $200 department store bike or even, for the more dedicated cyclist, a decent bike shop model starting at $500.

              And I’m not even trying to single out this one implementation. The numbers really don’t work for *any* “sharing” system of personal transportation that I’ve seen. Where I live we have HOURCAR and Nice Ride (and probably many other membership-based systems, too), and not a single one of them is priced reasonably compared to non-sharing alternatives.

              All I’m saying is that the fundamental economics should be addressed *long* before anyone sits down to do a CAD rendering of a custom bike design with tricked out electronics. Nothing indicates that has been done here, which is why I’m comfortable saying this is a project that is already doomed.

  3. art July 6, 2011 at 9:40 am -  Reply

    Unfortunately, the dependence on smart phones looks like a bad investment.
    First of all, it depends on expected backwards compatibility with future personal electronics for the lifespan of the system. With the average phone user upgrading every eighteen months or so, this could get obsolete in a hurry.
    Secondly, it effectively shuts out users without smart phones. Instead of going to a station, those users are left to wander around looking for a bike.

    • James Thomas July 6, 2011 at 10:04 am -  Reply

      I focused on the GPS based smartphone control in the post, but they plan to offer alternate ways to reserve the bikes…via street kiosks or at subway ticket vending machine for example. For those without smartphones, they also mention a simple text/call option and there will always be the option to unlock the bike when you see it with the keypad on the bike’s lockbox.

  4. Nick F July 6, 2011 at 9:50 pm -  Reply

    Thanks to James for posting about our project! And to everyone else for their interest!

    I’ll try to address some of the issues raised below:

    The Design:

    Why a shaft drive?
    As Russell mentioned, shaft drives have been used in a lot of bike sharing systems to date, because they offer many advantages over a chain. (Cleanliness, resistance to vandalism, durability.) Certainly, a chain and well-designed chaincase can be a great solution, but are much more of a design challenge than simply using a shaft drive. ( A chaincase is also a maintenance nightmare. As a bike mechanic at a euro-inspired bike shop, I’ve done flat fixes on dozens of different chaincase/chainguard designs… and despite 100+ years of advances, I don’t think there is a chaincase yet that is easy to disassemble, resistant to damage, and doesn’t rub the chain or cranks)

    Why a solar panel?
    The solar panel is in place to augment the power from the hub dynamo during periods in which a bike hasn’t been ridden in weeks. The hub dynamo produces plenty of power to run and charge the lighting and electronics when the bike is in use – the solar panel is all about trickle charging it during downtime.

    Is such a complicated bike economically feasible?
    Fortunately, we’ve been able to keep costs low. Our total cost-per-bike in a system is in the $1200-$1500 range… which sounds like a lot, until you discover that the cost-per-bike of a station-based system is $3000-$5000. The permitting and building of dedicated, proprietary “street furniture” that other bike share systems use is extremely expensive – and doesn’t benefit the cycling infrastructure of a city as a whole. Our system, even at hub locations, requires only more bike racks, usable by anyone.

    The System:

    How does a decentralized system work?
    Despite the ability to lock the bike anywhere, we will still certainly have “hub locations” where bikes can always be found. There will be redistribution services that put bikes where they need to be, but more importantly, there will be economic incentives for users to bring bikes back to the “hub locations”. If a user rents a bike that has been locked up outside of the service area, they will receive a credit to their account by returning it within the service area – and a larger credit for returning it to a hub location.
    Beyond knowing where to look for bikes, there is the issue of making sure the bike you want is there (and works) if you aren’t next to it at the moment. If you look at our website (www.sociabicycles.com) you can see a video of one of our prototype units in use, where a bike is “reserved” for 15 minutes while the customer walks a couple of blocks to the bike. When it is in this reserved state, nobody else can unlock it. Similarly, if a bike is flagged as needing repair, it will show up that way on the map, and will not be able to be unlocked.

    How much is the system going to cost? (do any sharing systems work?)
    This is probably the most commonly asked question, and the one that receives the most unsatisfying answer – it depends on the location. Universities, for example, could operate a system that was free for use for students, with riders only being liable for damages. A corporate campus could operate a system that allowed unlimited use for employees who played a yearly rate, with hourly rates for visitors. On the level of citywide systems, a potential model might be:

    – $10/month to subscribe
    – 1 hour of free time each day
    – $5 each additional hour.

    The most important thing to remember is that our system (and any “____” sharing system, really) doesn’t use the math as calculated above by Impossibly Stupid (that of the bikes being constantly used by a high-paying core-group of repeat users). It works (among other reasons) because there are 10 or 100 or 1000 times the system capacity of users registered, all paying a much smaller amount for the convenience of having a bike available anytime, anywhere.

    Equally so, we aren’t trying to replace bicycles as a consumer product – certainly people should own bicycles. Having a bike you can lockup and leave, or pickup anywhere, expands the possibilities for bicycles as a form of transportation tremendously however. Ever wanted to bike to a train station and leave town for a while, but not wanted to leave your own bike locked up outside for a weekend? Or run errands by bike, and then decide you’re going to buy something so large that you need to take the subway or a bus home?

    Smartphone only?
    The “smartphone” aspect of our bikes is great to talk about because it is so modern and convenient, but it is equally easy to unlock our bikes by putting in your account number and PIN. Kiosks will also be available as a future option as necessary, though smart phone ownership is growing quite fast. As far as the concern about having the smartphone technology become obsolete before the bikes do… that seems pretty unlikely. There have been a lot of changes in mobile technology in the last 1, 5, 10 years, but I don’t think you can point to a single one that makes it more difficult for third-party users to build applications for them.

    Anyway, I think that covers a lot of what was brought up. Again, thanks for your support. We will be demo-ing our system across the country this fall, check our Kickstarter page for the specifics!
    -Nick

    • Impossibly Stupid July 7, 2011 at 1:24 am -  Reply

      First, props to you for standing up to the heat! :-)

      the cost-per-bike of a station-based system is $3000-$5000

      I find this hard to believe. The much more standard bike used should be in the $500-1000 range, meaning that the stations themselves, even if you assume that you need double the number of stations as bikes, each cost upwards of $1000-2000! If true, that is downright brain dead.

      It works (among other reasons) because there are 10 or 100 or 1000 times the system capacity of users registered

      You can’t just assume/handwave that. Very few resources can be oversold that way; it works for low-contention burst-use things like bandwidth, but that pattern doesn’t fit daily transportation needs. There is simply no way you can expect people to pay $120/year for something they have a to fight 100 other people to use at 2-3 specific times in the day.

      That said, the University setting you mention is something that strikes me as possibly working. A campus does indeed have a lot of traffic that is distributed over the course of a day, so the odds are much better that the duty-cycle of the bike will be much higher. Of course, theft and vandalism might also be a much greater concern, too.

      But, for example, such a system could probably be used to great success in a place like the U of MN just to get across the Washington Avenue Bridge:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_Avenue_Bridge_(Minneapolis)

      With even just your 60 bikes going back and forth, you could probably easily convert half the walkers to bikers. That would translate to roughly 100 trips per bike per day, at about 5 minutes per trip, racking up just over 8 hours of use! That would be a seriously interesting pilot program for such a concept.

      • Nick F July 11, 2011 at 12:03 pm -  Reply

        No problem! I think getting as many people as possible working out the kinks of bike-sharing can only be a good thing.

        Station-based bike sharing systems DO cost that much, as hard as it is to believe…
        From the Portland Transportation Bureau:
        Smart Card bike sharing systems range in price from $4,500 – $5,500 including the cost of docking stations, computer software, licensing, bikes, and other capital expenditures.

        ( http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?c=50814#How much would it cost? )

        Another Portland article states costs as starting at $3500 per bike. ( http://www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/susan_nielsen/index.ssf/2009/08/bikesharing_in_portland.html )

        And yeah, with smaller bike-shares with lower startup costs, dedicated applications like the ones you describe are definitely feasible, and very exciting.

  5. wing yan SUM September 30, 2011 at 1:22 pm -  Reply

    Nice..!

  6. SCaea February 14, 2012 at 12:18 pm -  Reply

    Must one have a smart phone? That alienates a lot of potential customers, such as myself.

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