Bike sharing basics: Guide to bike share program types

When people talk to us about bringing bike sharing to their community, they often ask what their options are for the setup and structure of their program. While every bike share program is designed with the goal of giving people greater access to bikes, different program formats offer different advantages in terms of the types of bike trips they enable (longer rentals or shorter, on-demand trips), management, security, tracking and costs.

At a high level, there are two basic types of bicycle sharing systems: the bike library and distributed bike sharing.

The bike library

The bike library, sometimes also called a bike corral, is a central, staffed location where publicly available bikes are stored and checked out to riders. Just like a traditional library, bike libraries will often carry different types of bicycles for different purposes. Checkout times range from a few hours to several weeks and the rentals are usually very low cost or free for certain groups in the area. Bike libraries support a range of specialized bicycles (like mountain or road bikes), group rentals, longer rental periods and planned usage.

Because bike libraries are by nature staffed, they have limited operating hours and usually only a few locations, so riders must plan ahead to rent and return a bike. This means that while bike libraries support increased access to bikes, they do not enable on-demand local transportation in the same way that a distributed bike sharing system does. Notwithstanding major promotional efforts, bike libraries often see much lower ridership rates than a highly-visible distributed bike share.

The distributed bike share

Like the bike library, a distributed bike share system allows for the public use of shared bicycles. The advantage of a distributed bike share is that bikes are available at multiple locations in a community, on-demand and without the need for a staff member to check the bike out to a rider.

This allows riders to truly use the bike share as a transportation alternative for on-demand, local trips. Because there are multiple stations, riders can take convenient one-way trips, using a bike to get to their destination quickly and cheaply.

There are three formats of distributed bike sharing systems:

  1. Ad-hoc
  2. Kiosk, tech-on-station
  3. Tech-on-bike

Ad-Hoc bike sharing

The original bike sharing systems were ad-hoc. Fundamentally, an ad-hoc system involves the operator purchasing and distributing marked bicycles across the community without any locking technology or bike stations. Amsterdam’s anarchist White Bicycle Plan and the Google Bike program are two notable examples of ad-hoc bike shares.

Ad-hoc systems can work on closed campuses where employee wellness comes before program costs and the tracking of equipment, rides or riders is not a priority (e.g.: on a corporate campus like Google’s).

Because of issues with costs from theft and damage plus the difficulty of maintaining un-tracked bicycles around a community, the majority of modern bike shares do not run as ad-hoc programs.

Kiosk / Tech on Station

Many of the largest metropolitan bike share programs are kiosk-based. In a kiosk system, bikes are secured to and rented from tech-enabled docking stations. These stations range in sophistication from simple bike racks with key lockboxes to digital automatic locking kiosks with integrated rental systems. Major kiosk-based bike share programs are in US cities like NYC, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington D.C.

The advantages of kiosk systems are their ability to control access, streamline maintenance and reduce theft. In larger systems with hundreds of stations, they allow for one-way, on-demand trips and the custom stations stand out as visible indicators of the bike share program.

The disadvantage to kiosk systems is their high acquisition and operating costs. Stations are extremely expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars to manufacture and install with each specialized bike costing several thousand dollars.

Additionally, kiosk systems mandate constant rebalancing. Because the bike can only be returned to an official kiosk, if a station is full, riders must press on to another location. This can lead to a high operational cost.

Tech on Bike

The most modern development in bike sharing formats is tech-on-bike. In tech-on-bike systems, the locking and rental technology is located on the bike itself. Examples of tech-on-bike programs are in cities like Albuquerque, Cleveland and universities like Ohio State. Stations are designated for the bikes to be rented from and returned to, but besides instructional signage, are simple and relatively inexpensive. Riders checkout bikes using a smartphone app which allows them to release the lock that secures the bike to the rack.

The advantages of tech-on-bike are that the system allows for more flexibility in the types of bikes available to riders and the types of trips riders take. Because a station is not required to secure the bike, tech-on-bike allows for ‘stop overs' where a rider may stop and secure the bike at any location to run an errand or get food without ending their trip.

Tech-on-bike also avoids some of the rebalancing problems that afflict kiosk-based systems. If a station fills up from heavy use, riders are able to ‘overload’ a station by locking bikes to its free sides, eliminating the hassle of finding another location to end a trip.

Because tech-on-bike systems use standard bike locking technology, simple stations and standard-style bicycles, overall costs tend to be significantly lower than kiosk systems.

The disadvantage to tech-on-bike systems is that the bikes and stations may be less obviously ‘bike share’ bikes and can be helped by more signage and promotion. Additionally, because of their low cost, some system manufacturers sell tech-on-bike programs to organizations that aspire to offer bike sharing cheaply without fully disclosing the time and costs involved in operating a bike sharing system. Some bike share system providers mitigate this through offering bike share as a service with fixed costs for equipment, operations and maintenance.

Learn More

Interested in bike sharing for your community? Learn about how Zagster allows communities to make biking a part of their transportation system by increasing the number of cyclists, giving people access to bikes and filling gaps between destinations and regional transit. Get in touch.