A new wave of bike share bikes are beginning to hit the market and at the center of it all is Ryan Rzepecki. Ryan is the man behind one of the fastest growing bike share equipment suppliers in the world. His New York-based company, Social Bicycles, will supply the equipment for the City of Tampa’s bike share program and for Hoboken, New Jersey’s newly announced program. They currently have bikes at the San Francisco Airport and they’re also supplying the bikes for University of Buffalo’s bike share program.

But what is Social Bicycles actually bringing to the table and how does their new take on the bike share bike work? BikeShare.com had the chance to find out more about the burgeoning company and the details of its product.

Matt Christensen: Your company, Social Bicycles, creates smart bikes for use in bike share systems. Can you describe what a smart bike is?

Ryan Rzepecki: Our bikes have an integrated GPS-enabled locking system that works with regular bike racks. Riders can reserve these bikes using a web browser, mobile application, or from the keypad interface on the bike. We have removed the security and authorization system from the docking station and put it onto the bike itself.

MC: What makes a smart bike better than a traditional station-based bike share system?

RR: Station-based bike share requires an enormous investment in infrastructure and costs over $5000 per bike. Our system is one-fifth the cost and is much more flexible and scalable. We can serve a wider range of markets from college towns all the way up to large scale municipal systems.

MC: One big critique of bike share is that it doesn’t do a great job of addressing social equity. If, for instance, I don’t have a smart phone or other cell phone, how do I rent a SoBi bike or become a member?

RR: Most people have access to a web browser, tablet, or smartphone at some point during the day. We believe these interfaces are a much better way for on-boarding new users than tiny, poorly illuminated screens on an outdoor kiosk. We have a simple web registration form to sign up for the service the same way you would sign up for Netflix, Zipcar, or any other web-enabled platform.

In addition, we plan to partner with local businesses to create registration hotspots. We can put a sticker in the window that encourages potential members to stop by that location and sign up on a tablet device. We can buy thirty-plus tablets for the price of one outdoor kiosk and generate more support from the local community. Finally, we realize there are some markets that may require a walk-up kiosk which we will offer as needed.

Once you have created an account, you can immediately begin accessing the bikes. You can book via web or mobile, or directly from the bike without a phone. You simply enter your account number into the keypad and confirm with the pincode once the reservation is received by the bike.

MC: As you mentioned, your bikes our GPS enabled. What benefits does that provide?

RR: Each of our bikes have real-time GPS tracking. Other vendors are developing GPS, but are only reporting the data at the stations. Their approach adds value with data collection, but does not help to recover a stolen bike. On the other hand, we know the real-time location of all the bikes in our systems, which enables us to provide location sensitive offers or recover bikes if they are lost or stolen.

MC: Do you plan to make GPS trip data public once your systems really start going?

RR: We plan on collecting the data, making it anonymous, and then releasing it publicly so that it can be used by citizens and planners to improve bike infrastructure.

MC: As a user of the program, what kind of information would I receive that would tell me that I can’t simply lock my SoBi bike to a random city bike rack? Or can I?

RR: The location of hubs is communicated during the on-boarding process and through the web and mobile interface. If a user returns a bike to a hub, they do not pay any additional charges. If they lock to a rack outside of a hub, they pay a convenience fee that is posted back to the map as a bounty on the bike. The next user that takes that bike and returns it to a hub that needs a bike will get a credit. Through these incentives we hope that we can reduce the amount of rebalancing required by an operator while providing additional flexibility for the user.

Social Bicycles on display in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Ryan Rzepecki.
Social Bicycles on display in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Ryan Rzepecki.

MC: What would keep me from locking my personal bike to one of your hubs? Do you expect that to be a problem? If so, how do you plan to address it?

RR: I should point out that you could also lock your personal bike to a Bixi or B-Cycle station as well. There are a few approaches to this problem. One is to say that all our racks are shared by the entire bicycling community. This means any existing racks can be used for bike share, and new racks can be used by private bikes. Alternatively, you can place signage saying that these racks or only for smart bikes and others will be removed. If you take that approach, you then need to decide how strongly or weakly you need to enforce the policy.

MC: Are there any drawbacks to your smart bike scheme compared to a system with kiosks? 

RR: We can do everything a station-based system does, and more. We can have the reliability of a station-based system by creating high profile hub locations while still serving lower density areas with stand-alone racks.

Our operators are able to draw hub locations on the map through our web-based software. The hubs will be visible to users through the web and mobile interface so that they know where they can find and return bikes. On the street, the hubs will feature prominent signage, distinctive bike racks, and in some locations, even a walk-up registration kiosk. However, we can also have smaller and more flexible hubs in areas that have a lot of existing bike parking. For example, if a block in a college town has an abundance of existing bike parking, we can designate it as a hub without installing new racks.