SEP 21, 2017
Ko’s answer was simple, “The more people on bikes, the better.”
Indeed that seems to be the plan for Spin, LimeBike, and Mobike. All three work about the same. Using GPS-based tracking systems and QR codes, these dockless bikes can be unlocked and paid for with a smartphone. Once you’re done riding, you can lock it just about anywhere within the right of way.
Ko considers his company a complement to the largely successful Capital Bikeshare program that launched in 2010, now operated by Motivate. The system now boasts 3,700 bikes and 440 stations in the District, Maryland, and Virginia. “Capital Bikeshare is an amazing system,” Ko says. “But I think there are just inherent limitations to station-based systems, and that’s where we’ve come in to fill in the gaps.” He invited local community bike organizations to consider how his product fits into that ecosystem, with reactions ranging from curious to critical.
As Capital Bikeshare continues to expand service further into city neighborhoods, it’s also facing increased costs to replace an aging fleet in the second half of its lifespan. The system’s first bikes will reach their expected seven-year cycle this fall, and the earliest docks and kiosks have only a few more years. Amid uncertainty about corporate sponsorships or tax increases to cover replacement costs, these private companies think they can seize an opportunity.
“We’re like the Uber and Lyft to their bus and subway system,” says Toby Sun, the CEO of LimeBike. “It’s on-demand, any time, any where. There’s flexibility and convenience.” The company first launched in Greensboro, North Carolina, and was among the many companies that recently launched in Seattle to fill the void left by Pronto. It currently operates in 9 cities and 8 college towns.
For riders, the bargain is tempting. The three companies have promos for free rides, and otherwise charge about $1 for each half-hour ride. That could mean a faster penetration of bikes into neighborhoods with no upfront costs to the city.
Near LimeBike’s launch event downtown, I found a set of five Mobikes set up near bike racks. I watched someone circle around them to lock up a personal bike, then I took one for a quick spin around the block and locked it on K Street. In a busy square during the lunch hour, LimeBike’s market launcher Jason Wilde explained the green and yellow bikes to passersby.
“We want everyone to know we’re here as a piece of the transportation puzzle,” he says. “Our goal is to connect as many people as humanly possible. … We can serve all eight wards without having to spend mass amounts of government and public funds.”
In reality, that kind of penetration won’t happen under the current trial limitations. Currently at 400 bikes a piece, all three companies say they’d ideally like to have thousands of bikes in the city to scale out their models. And there are extra limitations in D.C.: the National Park Service has asked the companies to forbid parking on their property, particularly the National Mall and Rock Creek Park. It’ll be a challenge for the companies to enforce these rules at the two popular destinations—for starters, only Mobike’s app shows that the National Mall as off-limits. None of the three show Rock Creek Park as being out of bounds, nor do they include any of the National Park Service’s many smaller parks around D.C.