(Updated 3/16, 10:38 am) Austin, Texas is packed this week. Over 300,000 attendees poured into the city for South By Southwest (SXSW), the annual gathering of tech, film, and music industry green-lighters, up-and-comers, and fans.
The rule of thumb for assessing “hipness” is to ask this question: has it been at SXSW? Well, bike sharing has. Or maybe it hasn’t. For the second year in a row, the trendy fest is hosting a bicycle-loaning program called SXcycles. And it’s branded as a bike share program.
SXcycles partnered with Tern, a bike producer local to Austin, to offer four models of sponsor-branded folding bikes, atypical to what one would expect to see in a bike share program. This program lets SXSW badge-holders use the Tern bikes for free any time between 10:00am and 2:00am during the festival.
After registering online or in-person and putting down a $250 deposit, badge-holders can pick up their bike from the SXcycles headquarters at the festival, along with a helmet, light and lock. There aren’t docking stations for the bikes like the programs we are now familiar with, so riders are expected to rely on the existing infrastructure in downtown Austin to secure the bikes.
Having the chance to ride a bike to get around a packed festival doesn’t seem like a bad deal for only the cost of becoming a moving advertisement, a business model not unlike what’s expected from the CitiBike program in New York.
Since the bikes are virtually free to use, SXcycles certainly isn’t a bike rental like the one Bike Texas runs for SXSW attendees. But without the specialized bikes and the series of docking stations, it bears little resemblance to a conventional bikeshare program.
So why call it bike share at all? To some extent, the growing trend of bike sharing in the US and around the world plays into the decision to use the term, according to Sean Smith, Creative Director at Tern. ”Rather than calling it a bike rental, people understand it more as bike share,” said Smith.
In this young industry, nobody currently wields the gavel to make a definitive verdict one way or the other about what constitutes bike share. Indeed, many different variations have existed and used the same term. Using the term “bikeshare” lets SXcycles differentiate the program from a rental while simultaneously associating it with the growing trend of bike sharing programs worldwide.
SXSW has tried to come up with a bike sharing program to help move people about the festival, according to Craig Staley, Director of Bikeshare of Austin, the nonprofit contracted to operate Austin’s upcoming bike share program that is not affiliated with the SXcycles program. ”You throw a festival, and you have buses to move people around to the different venues. It’s like that.” said Staley.
Austin is scheduled to have a citywide bikeshare program operational by October of this year. And if the plans turn out as expected, stations will be put all around downtown where the festival takes place, according to Staley. Smith expects that when the Austin bike share program launches, SXcycles may have a smaller operation at SXSW.
“People like riding a bike just to get out and see the city. We’ve been told that this was the best part about SXSW. Something like this is needed. [The Bikeshare of Austin program] will lessen our program. But we do a lot of sponsorship, and [Bikeshare of Austin] will create a great impact on South By [Southwest]. If more people are getting on bikes, that’s a good thing,” said Smith.
The question lingers–if it’s not bike share, then should it be called something else? And the other question is whether that even matters. Needless to say, SXcycles is in a category all its own, somewhere between a traditional rental and a conventional bike share system—whatever it may be called.
Photo credit: Morgan Catalina