Sharing the Love: How Bicycle Share Systems Make Cycling Accessible

How bicycle sharing systems overcome design challenges creating a bicycle that will be comfortable, user-friendly and stand up to all sorts of weather.

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All bicycle sharing systems share some common design challenges: creating a bicycle that will be comfortable enough for riders of a wide range of heights and that will remain in good repair while staying docked outdoors in all weather. Beyond these basics, it is also the unexpected challenges and rewards that make bicycle shares integral additions to the cities they serve. For the system designers, bike sharing is a way to spread the love of cycling to a broader population and to bring an extra measure of joy and beauty to urban life.

Creating inviting bicycles for people who are not regular riders is a major motivation for B-cycle, a bicycle share collaboration among Humana (a health insurance company), Trek Bicycle Corporation and Crispin Porter + Bogusky (an advertising agency). “If you haven’t gotten on a bike in a while and want to try it out, B-cycle is probably around the corner. You can take one out for a little spin,” said Claire Hurley, manager of Madison, WI, B-cycle.

The technology that allows B-cycle’s docking system to work includes a bonus for the community of bike share users and for the communities where B-cycle systems are installed. RFID chips and hub-powered GPS units provide the company with data on bicycle use. That same technology also feeds data back to the users. Members can track their statistics online and view their miles ridden, carbon offset, number of calories burned and dollars saved in gas. Hurley noted that this is “one of our most popular features with our annual members,” who have struck up friendships and friendly competitions on the membership-wide leaderboard rankings.

B-cycle can also share usage information with local planners to help them prioritize the most popular bicycle streets for infrastructure improvements. The fine-grained, unbiased data collected by the tracking devices on the shared bicycles would be difficult and costly for cities to gather by other means.

Bicycle shares can also add beauty to the urban environment. Industrial designer Michel Dallaire saw the design of Montreal’s BIXI bicycle share as an opportunity to create a system that was both innovative and aesthetically pleasing. According to Dallaire, “A good design is something that will give you pleasure. And the pleasure has a lot of dimensions.”

Dallaire, together with Canadian bicycle manufacturer Devinci, imagined a bicycle that would both resist corrosion and delight the eye. To achieve this, the bicycles are manufactured through aluminum hydroforming rather than extrusion, allowing creation of a multi-dimensional frame. “The schematic of the BIXI is the boomerang,” said Dallaire. “It is very sturdy, very robust and also very elegant.” The ergonomics were studied carefully. “This is not a racing bike,” Dallaire observed. “It is street furniture on wheels.”

The aspect of the system of which Dallaire is most proud is the ease of installation of the docking stations. “Using gravity to install a station is much cheaper,” said Dallaire, noting that “it takes an hour to remove the station to another location.” The base of each 4-bicycle docking module weighs about 800 pounds and is solar-powered: the weight is its own anti-theft device and it is independent of the city electrical grid. Thus, docking modules can be moved from one docking station to another as patterns of use emerge and change.

Close to 30 cities in North America now have bicycle shares as part of their urban infrastructure, with several more scheduled to begin operating in the next couple of years. Perhaps the most anticipated program is New York’s Citi Bike, which is due to launch in March of 2013 with 7,000 bicycles at 420 stations, using the BIXI system.

As bike share continues to be sought after by different communities, a variety of technologies are being developed for systems big and small. California-based technology company BikeLink, which provides secure bicycle parking facilities, has developed a bicycle sharing technology that can be accessed by the same card reader as their bike lockers. Because BikeLink’s on-bike technology is very small, it can be installed on any type of bicycle. This allows a variety of bikes to be used, so that instead of renting a truck to move something heavy, one may be able to use a cargo bike or bakfiets from the local bicycle share. Down the line, users may also access the bicycles from an app on their smart phone.

Innovative and beautiful bicycle sharing is around the corner – in the closest bicycle sharing dock or coming soon to a neighborhood near you. As more and more cities embrace the concept, it becomes even easier to hop on a bicycle for everyday travel.


Laura McCamy is a San Francisco Bay Area writer, artist and bicycle activist. She is a former Alameda County Bicycle Commuter of the Year and currently chairs her town’s Bike/ Ped Advisory Committee and volunteers with the East Bay Bicycle Coalition.

1 Comment

  • Eric Berg

    Another accessibility issue is the need for a credit card to use most systems. It locks out many people who could benefit from bike share. Many of those users may lack a smartphone also. It might be useful to devote some effort into finding a solution that includes those potential users

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