I bundled up and made my way from my job in lower Manhattan to Bed-Stuy Brooklyn to see the new Social Bicycles (SoBi) space and chat with its founder and CEO Ryan Rzepecki. Social Bicycles is growing by leaps and bounds and I thought it would be fun to check in with them.
Full Disclosure: I was on the selection panel that interviewed the bike share providers that applied for the Phoenix contract, which included Social Bicycles.
Jonce: What is Social Bicycles?
Ryan: I have a background in urban planning with a Master’s Degree in planning from here in New York and I worked for the NYC Department of Transportation Bike Planning group for over a year before I started Social Bicycles. When I was finishing planning school, bike share systems were beginning to take off in Europe. Velib Bike Share in Paris launched in 2007 and it really changed what people thought about bike share and what it could be. So, I looked at the model and I loved the idea but there was still high cost with all the infrastructure needed – the docking stations and kiosks, etc. Also, as someone who rides a bike everyday I thought the hard infrastructure limits the appeal of the freedom of a bike. So the idea became “can you put all the technology on the bike rather than having it on the docking station?” You then can use technology, mobile connectivity, and GPS tracking to keep track of the bikes. This also allows the users to book the bikes through the web and smart phone applications or through an interface on the bike itself. So, this was the thought of Social Bicycles and it has been driving my life for the past five years.
Jonce: There are only a few bike share providers available right now. Why is Social Bicycles different?
Ryan: In North America there are only a few providers with two larger companies. Its a brand new industry that is at the most only six years old. So there is a lot of opportunity to think about things a little differently. Since Social Bicycles is different than what other bike share providers were doing, it was a significant amount of work to educate the market on our system. The value proposition of putting the technology on the bike and not stationary at a dock dramatically lowered the cost of the system. We can do the bike racks, the kiosks, and everything that makes it feel like a traditional bike share model, but just by putting the technology on the bike we are much, much cheaper than the other providers, about half the price!
The user experience of checking out a bike through a mobile app is very similar to things like Zip Car, or Uber, or all these other advance technologies that are much more familiar to the younger generation. For sponsors of the system, this strategy allows for better messaging and branding than the other bike share systems. Our system also allows for better data collection through real time GPS, something that no other bike share provider has been able to execute. This helps the city know where they should be putting in bike lanes and other bike infrastructure. This is also great for the user because it shows where you have biked, how many calories you have burned, how much carbon was avoided, and even how much money was saved versus driving!
Jonce: In which cities are you currently working?
Ryan: In 2013 we did four smaller pilot projects that led to some larger projects as we proved that the model works well. Tampa Bay was the first large city that was contracted. Phoenix was shortly thereafter, which, as you know, is a regional system which will include Phoenix, Tempe , and Mesa. Orlando and Atlanta have also just been announced with 500 plus bikes in each city. Hoboken, NJ was also a smaller pilot project we did with 25 bikes. They just announced that they will be launching a larger bike share system. Additionally, we won the contact for Providence R.I. and Hamilton Ontario. And we have a couple more big projects in the hopper that I am not allowed to talk about just yet. For 2014 it looks like we will have about 15 projects representing over 4,000 bikes!
Jonce: What are the three most important things a city needs in place before thinking about seeking a bike share system?
Ryan: 1) I think that there have been a few cities who have put the cart before the horse a little in terms of bike infrastructure, and even bike culture and motorist awareness. I don’t think that a city has to have a robust bike network. There does however, need to be a commitment to building that out concurrently with bike share. Because you will be putting much more cyclists on the street.
2) Many cities think that you need to do a feasibility study and then issue the RFP (request for proposal). I am personally a little skeptical of that strategy. Bike share is going to work in any area that has some amount of density that creates natural trips and some sort of transit options. In every part of the city there are going to be areas where bike trips make the most sense. We are doing a lot of projects in cities that are thought of as big, sprawling, low density areas. Phoenix, Tampa, Atlanta, they all have that perception. However, there are places in all of those cities where bike trips happen. If we can make bike share work in those types of cities, you can make bike share work anywhere.
3) Funding! Everyone wants bike share but nobody knows how to pay for it. At a minimum a city needs to be open to other strategies for funding. Advertising, sponsorships etc. User fees alone are not enough to cover the operations let alone the capital. So you need to have some outside inputs whether it be advertising, grants, etc.
Jonce: What is rad about the new Social Bicycles system that is launching in Phoenix?
Ryan: I like the Phoenix project a lot. The amount of support we are getting from the city and the community is awesome. I spent some time there and really saw the potential and saw the change that is happening. It may take a long time from a urban perspective for Phoenix to turn into a walking city but that doesn’t mean that on a much faster path it couldn’t become a really great biking city. You have all these little pockets of density that you can connect through short bike trips. Being a part of creating new trip types is very exciting for Social Bicycles. The other great thing that Phoenix has is the Light Rail. Linking bike share up with Light Rail is great because it extends the trip by being able to use both modes.