As demand for bike sharing increases around the world, new challenges arise for service providers. Making bikes available when and where people need them is vital, but not easy. Once solutions are found, shared mobility can grow up to become mainstream transportation.
Bike sharing is the fastest growing type of transportation system in history. As of April 2015, there are a thousand bike-sharing cities around the world, with a total of one million bikes available for hire.
When bike-sharing services were rolled out in Paris, Barcelona, London and New York, people quickly grasped that these systems were more than just a way to get tourists around: a new form of public transportation was born, and it is set to shift how people move around their cities.
Why is bike sharing so popular? Numerous research studies show that users enjoy the flexible access to healthy and quick rides that they can fit into their daily life on demand, as it makes sense for them.
Users can find available rides with their smartphone, collect their bike at one of many stations around the city, and then drop it off at another station when done. It is a perfect system, in theory.
The reality: complex logistics
Achieving this user experience calls for cities and bike-sharing operators to overcome some real and daunting challenges. The biggest of these is getting the bikes where they need to be at all times. For the system to work without frustrating users, there needs to be a bike available when they collect, and a bike parking spot available when they drop off.
Coordinating this, however, has often been problematic. The system can get out of balance quickly and repeatedly: some stations run empty and others fill up. This may not be a big problem for recreational users, but for those who want to make it their default mobility option and rely on it, it is a real barrier.
Trying to solve the issue by forcing users to reserve a bike or penalizing them for disbalancing the fleet are not viable solutions as they undermine the benefits of convenience, flexibility and simplicity.
New challenges call for new solutions
Operators try to work against the imbalances by redistributing bikes by truck from areas of low demand to areas of high demand. Unfortunately, operators cannot predict where people will need bikes, which makes this method heavily inefficient: for most systems, redistribution causes the largest portion of the operating expenses and makes the project less viable.
As a result, bike sharing remains highly dependent on sponsors or public subsidies, and even if demand goes through the roof, systems cannot be scaled up.
Artificial intelligence technologies are entering various industry sectors, and will be instrumental in solving issues in shared mobility systems (be it with bikes, e-scooters, or e-cars).
Cities and industries realize that although bike sharing is booming, it is still in its early stage. They need to extend their commitment to developing this revolutionary form of public transportation, just like any other public transit system has needed continuous development.
The good news is that the thousand cities already offering bike sharing are developing a repository of shared experience and a joint vision. If they unite, learnings can be made and costs can be reduced.
Once the technical challenges are solved, bike sharing and similar systems with new, light urban electric vehicles can become mainstream transportation in cities across the world.
Have you faced any difficulties when using a bike sharing system? If so, share your experience in our comment section
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.