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In response to the user survey issued by bike share app Spotcycle, it’s prudent to launch a discussion about the state of the bike share app market. Bike share apps are numerous, with every major operator offering their own app, varying widely in functionality. And with the transient nature of open docks, available bikes, and station locations, riders rely on up-to-date apps to plan their trips accordingly.

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From left to right: B-cycle’s app, PBSC’s ‘Cyclefinder,’ and Spotcycle

A typical bike share app displays stations on a map with available bikes/docks, alerting users to offline stations or those that are full or empty. B-cycle’s app is probably the best embodiment of this approach, which simply lists B-cycle cities and available docks and station locations. Some, like Spotcycle and PBSC’s ‘CycleFinder,’ offer a timer to remind users of their 30 minute free riding limit which offer push notifications to alert you when your close to your limit. And others provide more detailed mapping information with preferred bike routes and transit locations, like ‘Chicago Bike Guide’ that I tested while using Divvy Bikes in Chicago. Similarly, Spotcycle also allows users to share routes and to overlay bike routes in some of its cities.

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Citi Bike’s map, sidebar menu, and station to station directions

In terms of features, the best of the bike share apps is Citi Bike’s who developed their own app rather than use the PBSC (Citi Bike’s equipment supplier) offering. The first thing apparent about this app is that the look and feel incorporates modern design elements, like the sliding side-menus that Facebook has pioneered. Perhaps the app’s best feature is station-to-station directions, which is a significant user-experience hole missing from other bike apps.

While I have yet to travel to New York City to use the Citi Bike app in practice, after a cursory trip to the App Store, it seems like the best app on the market. However, it’s also missing some crucial features like displaying transit stops or bike routes. Currently, the optional overlays only show restaurants, bike shops, coffee, and (of course) Citibank branches. There have also been reports of the Citi Bike app inaccurately reporting station statistics. And in an office discussion, our editor mentioned he can’t open the app without it crashing moments later. (And apparently he’s not the only one who has had issues.)

While developing an app certainly isn’t easy or cheap, none of the aforementioned apps provide a complete solution to the bike share experience. Here are some suggestions to developing the perfect bike share app.

Station-to-Station Bike Directions

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The app juggle!

One of the biggest issues I’ve encountered while using bike share is a frustration I’ve named the “app juggle.” The app juggle occurs when you constantly need to switch between two or three different apps to accomplish one task–namely, getting to your destination. I would open up Spotcycle or Cyclefinder to find a station and bike near me. Then I would fire up Google Maps to give me walking directions to the station. Then I’d take out a bike and start riding, guided by Google Maps’ turn-by-turn bike directions. When I was near my destination, I’d juggle back to Spotcycle to find a nearby station and bike there. While I often couldn’t be bothered to enter another address into Google, I would constantly be checking the app to make sure I was on the right track. I then would return the bike and retrace my steps.

There are a number of problems that are brought up by this current paradigm. First, users are dependent upon using their smartphone while riding to use the system. While safety dictates that one pull over, I mostly found myself scrambling at red lights to figure out my next move. Another issue arises when Google Maps directs you to an area without bike share stations, which can result in a significant detour if you’re not careful.

What bike share users really need is a ‘turn-by-turn’ feature integrated with bike share stations. In an ideal bike share app world, a user could just plug in their GPS location and their ending address, and the app would guide them to the nearest station with walking/transit directions. Once there, the app would offer bike directions to the station nearest their ending address, and walking directions from the station to their end point. And if the selected station fills up or goes offline, then the app could redirect the user mid-ride to another station.

Turn-by-turn directions could be offered via headphones, a bluetooth accessory (shown above), or even Google Glass, would make navigating cities by bike share significantly more user friendly. Imagine riding along and hearing the app chime in and warn you in a pleasant, Siri-like voice: “You are leaving the bike share service area. Would you like directions to the nearest station?” This is where things move from convenient to transformative.

Crowdsourcing Data

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A zoomed out shot of Los Angeles’ Waze network

Wayfinding apps like Waze, a “community-based traffic and navigation app,” utilizes user data to enhance point-to-point travel efficiency by car. Waze mines the data to discover average automobile speeds along routes and re-routes users to the quickest path to their destination. While Google Maps tells you to take the most direct route, even if it’s on a bumper to bumper freeway, Waze will tell you the fastest way. For many, including myself, the app has had awesome results.

The beauty of crowdsourcing is that the more users using the app, the more effective the app’s service becomes. At the time of writing, Waze has over 12,000 ‘Wazers’ reporting data in the Los Angeles region. Waze also has a gameification scheme that rewards users with points for things like reporting traffic data and contributing to the network.

While an app like Waze finds the quickest route to avoid traffic, bike share apps could show bike share users the most bike-friendly route through the same crowdsourcing mechanism.

If you have ridden around a typical American city, you know that your route is extremely important to the comfort level of your ride. Novice cyclists often need appropriate bike infrastructure to feel safe; while a confident cyclist from out of town probably isn’t aware of a bike-friendly residential street. Crowdsourcing data from riders could potentially generate the ideal route for your level of experience. There could be an “infrastructure only” option that only routes established bikeways or a “direct route” option that provides the shortest route regardless of riding conditions. And there could be a “Goldilocks” option that balances comfort and speed. For bike share users, routes that other riders took between station itineraries could be aggregated into a suggested route.

Some other useful features could be reporting of road hazards like closures and diversions that may not be reflected in the somewhat static mapping of these apps. For instance, if a route is closed to a parade, or if a bike lane was recently painted and isn’t yet reflected on the map. Another surprisingly non-existent feature in the bike share app market is reporting station issues. If a bike share station isn’t working properly, users could report it to the app alerting the operator to follow-up on the issue and preventing other riders from wasting their time.

Google Maps and Bike Share

It would be difficult to dispute that Google Maps is the most widely used app for mapping and wayfinding. And an important thing to consider is developing a good wayfinding app takes a considerable amount of resources to get right. Even Apple, with its billions of dollars in revenue, couldn’t get it right with its Maps application. Google Maps has beaten out competitor after competitor (when’s the last time you used Mapquest?) and has continually improved its product with transit, biking, and walking directions. Google also recently acquired Waze for close to $1 billion, so their crowdsourced routing will likely be making its way into Google Maps soon. So why not incorporate another improvement with bike share?

If Google were to incorporate bike share into its Maps app, we would have something very close to the perfect mobility app. And as bike share spreads to more and more cities around the globe, it’s a viable and convenient transit option that would add another mode to Google’s transit mix. The user could see every available option, traveling by car, by transit, or by bike share and make their choice accordingly. And with crowdsourced traffic information, users would be able to alert each other of their favorite routes and inconveniences like offline stations. This would remove many barriers to experiencing bike share and would be and instant tool to the huge userbase that rely on Google Maps.

A step in the right direction: The Social Bicycles App

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Social Cyclist and SoBi’s native app

The team at Social Bicycles (SoBi), a leading bike share equipment supplier, understands the power of integrating user data with bike share. Their brand is founded around creating a social network around bicycling and bike sharing. While their data platform is in early stages of development, it has already got a head start on its competition. Since the SoBi bikes have active GPS, bike route data can be collected in real time and shared throughout the app platform. And by sharing this data over an app-based social network, the SoBi product could allow for the aforementioned crowdsourced wayfinding.

Sharing routes and potential issues is baked right into the Social Bicycles platform. Users are given the option to send a Tweet or a Facebook post of their ride route to share their helpful hints. Also the SoBi app incorporates gamification, and allows users to earn badges for their rides. The recently launched Social Cyclist app ports this platform to normal cyclists, opening up their data market to all local cyclists. The aim of Social Cyclist is to “vote with your wheels” and enable DOT’s to install bike lanes and bike racks where they’re most needed.

While the app has a leg up on its competition, it’s not quite perfect. The SoBi app has directional features between station locations, but it frustratingly redirects to Apple’s Maps. The problem with this approach is that Apple’s Maps doesn’t include bike directions, so you’ll be directed to routes that could range from bike-unfriendly or a freeway. And by outsourcing wayfinding to another app the user loses out on the potential for crowdsourced directions. Furthermore, the Social Cyclist’s “vote with your wheels” function is dependent upon the user’s ability to remember to launch the app and share ride information once the trip is finished. The app could instead activate automatically once the user starts moving, similar to the app Moves, a multi-modal trip tracking app.

While there isn’t yet an A+ bike share app, the encouraging thing is that the market is moving in the right direction. And with the industry being so young in the U.S, some usability hiccups are to be expected. We can’t wait to see what the future holds, and if you see crowdsourced bike-directions just remember that you heard it here first!

  • Steven Vance

    It looks as if Moves or Social Cyclist has the potential to be Waze for bicycling. In Chicago, the city government posts bike route detours on its Facebook page (which has over 2,000 likes) but does so only seldom. It rarely posts about construction situations that affect bicyclists (like rough pavement) unless there’s a bike lane on that street.

    A Waze-like app could be a solution to this, where a large number of people cycling dedicated to sharing this information would provide the detour/construction alerts to the app’s users.

    • Bike

      Thanks for the comment Steven!

      I imagine Chicago’s an exception, not the rule, the LADOT doesn’t offer the same courtesy (which would be great considering all the film shoots). We hope that bike share companies employ crowdsourcing techniques and capitalize on all this GPS valuable data they have access too.