Zero docks: what we learnt about dockless bike-sharing during #TTDC2018

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Dockless bikes typically sport bright colors that make them easy to identify.
Photo: Montgomery County/Flickr

How can we harness the digital economy to make mobility more sustainable? This question was the main focus of this year’s Transforming Transportation conference, which brought together some of most creative and innovative thinkers in the world of mobility. One of them was Davis Wang, CEO of Mobike, a Chinese startup that pioneered the development of dockless bike-sharing and is now present in more than 200 cities across 12 countries. In his remarks, Wang raised a number of interesting points and inspired me to continue the conversation on the future of dockless bike-share systems and their potential as a new form of urban transport.

What exactly is dockless bike-sharing (DBS)?

Introduced in Beijing just under two years ago, dockless bike-share has been spreading rapidly across the world, with Mobike and three other companies entering the Washington, D.C. market in September 2017.

As their name indicates, the main feature that distinguishes “dockless” or “free-floating” systems from traditional bike-share is that riders can pick up and drop off the bicycles anywhere on the street rather than at a fixed station.

This is made possible by a small connected device fitted on each bike that allows users to locate and unlock the nearest bike with their smartphone in a matter of seconds—yet another new derivative of the “internet of things” revolution!

Trips are priced based on their duration and charged to the user’s credit card through the same smartphone app. In the US, most rides cost about $1 for every half hour. Because these “smart bikes” are quite different from what most consumers are used to, operators have made a conscious effort to emphasize user friendliness and streamline the setup process: it takes as little as three minutes for a new rider to set up an account and get going, with instructions clearly visible on the rear wheel and handlebar.

Design-wise, while each company has its own fleet and unique livery, all dockless bikes are designed to be durable and sport bright colors that make them easy to identify even in the most chaotic urban environments. According to Mobike figures, the average bike costs around $200-400 and generates 1,000 to 6,000 trips per year. DBS is becoming the next hype in active mobility, to the point that Mobike debuted last September in Fortune 500’s “50 Companies that are changing the world in 2017”.

Opportunities and Challenges

Considering their popularity, many believe this model is here to stay—in Shanghai, the “mecca”of dockless systems, some the  1.7 million free-floating bikes are already in operation.

Dockless bikes have also been praised as a great new addition to the urban landscape that will get more people into active mobility modes. In the US, some incipient research also suggests the new bikes may coexist with publicly-owned docked bike-sharing systems, increase the modal share of cycling, and attract more socially diverse communities into commuter biking.

You may also have heard some of the negative press on how the bikes end up clogging valuable sidewalk space (check out DC’s JUMP ebikes for a hint on how to fix this), are being vandalized, thrown into rivers, or even how one dockless bike-share company in China recently went bust. Without a doubt, DBS is still an emerging technology with ups and downs, and regulation has yet to catch up to mitigate any adverse consequences—that is precisely what China is now striving for through its new national regulation.

Planning urban transport in the era of Big Data

Yet the debate around the merits of dockless bike-share often ignores one major byproduct of the system: DATA. Since every single bike is equipped with Internet of Things technology and every user carries a gps-enabled smartphone, free-floating bikes can generate tons of data—as much as 30 terabytes daily, according to Mobike’s white paper on bike use in China. And, hypothetically, for users who agree to anonymously share additional location data from their phones, dockless systems could make it possible to map millions of daily trips, providing valuable insight into the travel patterns of riders: do they use the bike to get to a transit stop? For short hops in the middle of the day? To reach a distant transit stop without having to transfer? Which gender and age group bikes the longest and most intensively?

While it’s too early to tell what the future holds for DBS, they provide exciting opportunities to collect mobility data and plan urban transport with unprecedented clarity. In the era of smart mobility, traditional pen-and-paper surveying is quickly starting to feel like watching TV in black and white. The mutually reinforcing processes of innovation in mobility systems, data generation, and its use for better and more powerful planning analysis naturally point to a more nuanced, high-definition data landscape that will help cities make informed decisions about how to manage travel demand, how to build better transport… and, yes, how to distribute dockless bikes better!


Leonardo Canon Rubiano

Urban Transport Specialist, World Bank

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