Bike sharing is NOT about bikes. Here's why...

Get your phone out of your pocket and picture this — what would life be like if you were using the same phone 4 years from now? This may seem like a very ‘millennial’ problem to have but given the rate at which technology and software is developed today, one that’s ever more likely to happen. Consumer behavior has shifted and on average, American smartphone users upgrade their devices every 22 months, according to a 2014 study by Recon Analytics. Which is precisely why Apple recognizes that with the iPhone, they are not in the smartphone business (cue Apple’s new leasing program that allows device upgrades every 12 months). The iPhone is a platform that allows Apple’s army of app developers and technology partners to create a user experience so unique that it’s customers will continue to pay money for it, even if all they do is ‘move the headphone jack to the bottom’!

The bottom line is that technology platforms are all about delivering experiences rather than technology. Bike sharing, like smartphones, will succeed when it enables changes in behavior by creating a unique and desirable user experience. Curiously though, the industry’s approach thus far has been around delivering just better hardware like bikes and kiosks. Let’s look at why this has happened.


 The White Bikes of Amsterdam

The White Bikes of Amsterdam

The concept of bike sharing has been around since 1965 when a group of Dutch anarchists distributed white bicycles around Amsterdam. Ambitious but flawed, the program collapsed within days after bikes were stolen or dumped in canals around the city. Perhaps deterred by the operational challenges experienced in Amsterdam, second and third generation bike sharing programs were centered around making incremental improvements to the hardware and software; at first, by adding coin operated kiosks to bring a sense of ‘operational normalcy’, followed by adding on-the-bike tech and mobile apps to monitor operations and prevent theft.


As bike sharing enters it’s 4th generation, success or lack thereof will be marked not by ‘intelligent bikes’ (as seen above) but by whether or not the system operator and sponsors innovate to deliver a markedly better, more modern user experience. (Read: New York City’s bike share program still experiencing issues) After all, on demand transportation services like Uber and Lyft are making it cheaper, faster and (slightly) cleaner to travel short distances…a travel pain point bike sharing solves today.

 The Smart Bike

The Smart Bike

That said, people may still choose other modes of transportation to grab a quick bite, dash to a meeting or get around town. However, our strategy to get more people biking cannot be reliant solely on manufacturing more complex gadgetry to put between their legs.. This is not a knock on manufacturers, but in the world of bike sharing the newest bike today will be yesterday’s news by the time a sponsor a) conducts a feasibility study b) goes through the RFP and c) launches a typical program…a process that can take anywhere from 12 months to 2 years!

Crucially, in order to compel users to ditch cars in favor of bikes, bike share providers will need to deliver an experience that is far superior to the Ubers and Lyfts of this world. This is only possible only if the ecosystem is able to innovate together around the entire stack of hardware (bikes, docking stations, locking technology), software (mobile apps, fleet management) and operations (maintenance, billing, customer support) and improve the entire experience for partners (cities, towns and campuses) and users (riders).


Instagram succeeded where countless other photo sharing apps like Hipstamatic, Flickr and Camerabag failed because, while Kevin Systrom and his team got a number of things right, they did one thing incredibly well…they made Instagram simple and easy to use for the everyday photographer. The old way of being able to upload and share photos online was still a radical shift from the status quo but overlooked the frustrations of the 50 year-old baby boomers that weren’t as comfortable using complex online and mobile apps.

Similarly, I believe the true adoption of bikes and bike sharing will come when the user experience of riding a bike (bikes, platforms, payment, local infrastructure) is equal to or better than the user experience of hailing a cab at the touch of a button. When we make it so easy that a user can walk up to a bike, unlock it with a single click and ride away.

Nick Atrey is a sales consultant for Zagster and fanatical bike commuter. He lives in San Francisco.

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