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What does it take to run a bike share?

The biggest factor behind a bike share’s success is not the technology or even the bikes, it’s the people and processes that keep the system running day to day. From planning, launch, education, operations and maintenance, top-notch bike sharing programs have processes and people that ensure great rider experiences.At Zagster, our fleet team makes sure that more than 100 bike share programs across the United States are up and running for every ride.

Jeremy Jo

We sat down with Zagster fleet manager Jeremy Jo to get the low down on what it takes to run a successful bike share.

The Share: Jeremy, welcome. Tell us a little about yourself and the role of fleet operations at Zagster.

Jeremy Jo: Thanks for having me.

Fleet operations at Zagster handles everything that has to do with keeping our bike share programs running. We make sure that there is always a supply of bikes available for riders across our locations. That means coordinating everything from maintenance, rebalancing, replacements, and winterization/storage for every bike.

I started working in the cycling industry at 15 doing sales and service for a local bike shop in California. Eventually, I moved to Boston and studied to be an engineer. Most recently I finished my Masters in Mechanical Engineering at Tufts University and also a Masters in Engineering Management at the Gordon Institute at Tufts as well.

TS: Why is an operations program important for bike sharing?

JJ: I think the best way to describe any sharing system is a supply and demand economy. You need both sides of the supply and the demand to be fulfilled to be able to have successful operations. At Zagster, our supply side is bikes and if we don't have bikes available than we can't keep up with demand which means the demand side is going to drop because riders will know that the supply just isn't there.

So it's important to operate successfully so we can make the bikes available which means that the riders can rely on bike sharing system and utilize the system as a sustainable and reliable mode of transportation.

TS: So the more riders see the bikes are in good shape, are available, are where they want to be, the more they will use them. What are the maintenance considerations that go along with bike share bikes? A lot of people ride their bikes all the time and never bring them into a mechanic.

JJ: I would say that a casual rider would use their personal bike maybe 3-4 times a month. An aggressive commuter might ride 5-10 times a week, but our bikes can see 15 or more rides per day. So you are seeing potentially 5-15x utilization with bike share bikes versus personal bikes.

Because of the level of riding, the bikes need increased attention and that means more care to understand when a part is worn out and even knowing when something is going to break so you can fix it proactively.

So frequency of service intervals is much higher and that’s where the knowledge and skill comes into play because the more efficient and more knowledgeable you are the less time you need to spend on each bike because you know what to look for.

TS: So if these bikes are being ridden a lot more than personal bikes, how often does a mechanic need to visit the system? Is this a regular thing, or just occasionally?

JJ: So this is a tough question to answer because it changes based on scale and it changes based on use. Obviously as you use the bikes more they need more service.

Adding in the operational side of things brings more complexity to the situation. I think that a great way to describe it is there are two sides to the mechanics visits or site visits in general related to bikes.

If a bike has a flat tire, that's a service visit required. The bike needs maintenance so the shifting, braking and everything is running smooth and there's air in the tires, which all falls into the maintenance category.

But then there's the rebalancing and station visit side of maintenance in that you need to make sure the bike share system is running smoothly. This is moving bikes around, reallocating and making sure all the stations have an adequate number of bikes to meet the demands and expectations of riders.

TS: There's more to operations than just having a mechanic on the ground, you someone who's proactively looking at the system and making sure it's operating correctly.

JJ: Yes, but I think there's even more than just that. There's the fleet side of things in terms of being able to address any issues that come up and working with mechanics to resolve them but there's also the support side of things.

Who does a rider go to if something goes wrong? So you need that inbound support request as well as the outbound issue dispatch.

So right now, we have someone at Zagster who does just that. Our rider services team can track a bike down, understand what needs to happen, enter it into the system, follow up with riders and generally be the first line of support. And that is probably something that we find many people don’t have with bike share programs they do on their own and often don’t have all these pieces in place to be able to support the riders.

TS: What would be your advice for communities that are looking at starting bike sharing systems right now? What are the things they should be thinking about?

JJ: I think one thing that often gets underestimated is the number of bikes required in order to have a successful bike share. Anecdotally, we have programs where there is really successful ridership but their complaint is always that there are no bikes available.

This is an artifact of a couple of things: that the operation isn't working in terms of getting the bikes to where they need to be, but more so it's that the program is successful and we don't have enough bikes on the ground.

It's that supply/demand balance. It’s important to budget the appropriate number of bikes so that it doesn't look like the program is failing when it’s really very successful.

Another thing to think about is rider education. Many people know how to ride a bike, but are inexperienced with handling a bike in an urban environment. I don't mean just riding - I mean how to ride on the road, when and where to lock it up - that whole level of rider education is something that we support is well.

Also, on the operations side we have people that really understand how to design bike share systems, who know to determine the optimal system size, if you need overflow parking and where the flow of traffic is. Just for example, on a campus we place stations to try and replicate that traffic flow because the bikes are being used as transportation and they need to be placed in order to make the system successful.

TS: So your team has really baked in these best practices all the way through the service Zagster provides. I mean, this isn't just a bike, part of the whole program is you get the knowledge of these operational best practices.

JJ: Yea, I think that bike sharing is more than just bikes. To launch a successful program there are things that you need to do that people don't even think about before they actually have the bikes on the ground. You need the buy in of the community, you need good equipment and you also need a solid operational plan in order to launch and grow a successful program.

Learn More

Want to run a better bike share? Check out the free Guide to Running a Bike Share here.

Zagster’s planning, launch and operations teams are experienced in managing on-demand bike share networks. 

Get in touch with us to learn more about how we can help you in planning or implementing a bike share program.