Uber and others are bringing 'dockless' bike-sharing to North America

'Dockless' bike-sharing promises 'mobility as a service.'
Ride hailing service UBER recently acquired Jump ebike sharing startup, as part of a 'mobility as a service' strategy. (Jump)
Listen18:28

By Nora Young

In a tech world obsessed with finding the next big thing, the innovation of the moment is... bike-sharing.

Recently, ride-hailing giant Uber, acquired the US-based startup, Jump, which specializes in ebike-sharing. But that's just the latest in a flurry of activity in the bike sharing space.

Chinese bike-sharing companies Ofo and Mobike are moving into multiple markets in the UK, with Mobike having plans for U.S. cities as well. The U.S. has a number of home grown bike-sharing startups. Here in Canada, Toronto-based DropBike is already in several Canadian cities. New bike-sharing services started spreading from Victoria to the lower mainland in B.C. earlier this year.

On-demand bikes are hardly new. Here in Canada, several cities already have sturdy bikes that you pick up and leave at fixed docking stations.
Hiring dockless bikes in Sydney, Australia. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

What's driving this new speculation is so-called "dockless" bike technology. Basically, you unlock and pay for the bike using an app on your phone, ride it to your destination, and then you can just lock it up and leave it. Unlike older kinds of bike-sharing, you don't have to return it to the nearest docking station. They're location-enabled, so the company can keep track of them.
Transportation and urban environment writer Laura Bliss

Laura Bliss is a staff writer with CityLab, who recently wrote about the Uber/Jump deal. She sees it—and dockless bike sharing more generally—as part of a movement to mobility-as-a-service.

"This is the concept of a single platform...where you can find every type of transportation service out there, other than your personal car," she said. She explained that from a single app you'd be able to do everything from looking up bus stop information, to booking an Uber or Lyft, to getting your dockless bike.

If everything is converged into one place and payment is also handled there...that's going to make it much less likely that a person is going to resort to driving themselves- Laura Bliss

"The idea is that if everything is converged into one place and payment is also handled there, and everything can be booked and streamlined, that's going to make it that much less likely that a person is going to resort to driving themselves," she said.

Dockless bikes are certainly convenient for the rider, but they have not been without their problems. Hong Kong-based startup GoBee has cited vandalism in its decision to leave the French market, and there have been reports of unwieldy stacks of dockless bikes cluttering up sidewalks, for example, after they were introduced in Dallas.

But can bike-sharing really take off in North American cities, especially with Canadian weather?
Raktim Mitra, associate professor in the school of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University. (Clifton Li)

"There are many barriers to biking in general, but there are some that can be easily addressed using bike share systems," said Raktim Mitra, an associate professor in the school of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University in Toronto.

He said that one of the main barriers is simply the fear prospective bike riders have of someone stealing their bike. "Bike share facilities can address that quite easily," he said, citing the ease of the new GPS-enabled, dockless bikes.

There are many commuters who don't take transit to work just because they don't have a way to connect them from transit stop to their final destination- Raktim Mitra

While bike commuting rates are low in North American cities, Mitra pointed out that there is potential for growth, since "there is data that suggests there are lots of trips we're making on a day-to-day basis that could be biked if proper facilities were there, or in the presence of a more robust bicycling culture," he said.

The hope is that bike-sharing could solve the so-called 'first mile/last mile' problem. "There are many commuters who don't take transit to work just because they don't have a way to connect them from transit stop to their final destination, and that last mile can easily be bridged by bike share systems," Mitra said.

Despite the potential of mobility-as-a service, neither Mitra nor transportation journalist Laura Bliss see the financial success of these dockless bike companies as a done deal. "What it requires is a dense city where people are using bikes very, very often, where the turnover is high enough that the one dollar ride is actually resulting in profit," said Bliss.

"I don't see bike share systems being very successful in the very short run," said Mitra. "At the same time, we see a systematic increase in bike rates... And I think companies like Uber are speculating on that potential."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.