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Jan Lee headshot

Austin's New 'Stationless' Bike-Share Program Lets You Park Anywhere

By Jan Lee

Think of it as a flexible car-share program on two wheels.

One of the best things about ridesharing programs is the range of choices – including when it comes to reserving a vehicle that happens to be right outside your door. There’s no need to hoof it to the “nearby” lot or spend 20 minutes filling out lengthy forms each time you want to rent a car. There’s an app for that.

Well, the same principle is now available for bikes in Austin, Texas. The Spin bike-share program, which launched after a detailed study of successful programs in other cities, operates on a stationless bike concept -- allowing riders to reserve a bike online, use it wherever it’s available within city limits, and then drop it off and lock it to any publicly-accessible bike rack.

It’s a popular concept in places like China, where bike-share companies have been successful in raising large amounts of capital to support new, widely-used programs. Here in the States and Canada, however, the idea that a bike can be rented and left anywhere for the next guy is still a novel (if not scary) prospect for investors.

The architect of this new program, Derrick Ko -- who, coincidentally, used to work for Lyft, and is familiar with the elements that make a car-share program so popular -- says the company studied a number of other bike-share programs before launching in Austin earlier this month. The company celebrated its first day in Austin with a post on Medium:

Research shows that station-based programs in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and Boston often suffered from under use, Ko told FastCoExist. A bike in the Bay Area is used an average of 1.7 times a day. The new company figured this statistic could be improved if cyclists weren’t as restricted in where they picked up, used and dropped off the bikes – what Ko called an “unnatural” pattern of behavior for city-dwellers who are used to going from point-to-point quickly, often in short jaunts.

And it’s wasteful -- the very problem the sharing economy railed against when it first launched a decade ago. It forces consumers to choose cars over bikes for those trips that are just plain miserably inconvenient (or too expensive) to make by bike, like heading to a neighborhood that doesn’t have a bike drop-off point.

What I find makes sense about Spin’s strategy is something often left out of the equation: It’s inclusive. I’d be willing to bet that conventional station-based bike programs are passed up by people who can ride a bike but have limited walking capacity, like individuals with disabilities.

Our past reviews of global bike-share programs highlighted this: Stations were often positioned in areas that benefited from the greatest volume of consumers (and fit ones at that), not necessarily where consumers needed to go. So, hoofing six blocks to pick up a bike would be a turnoff for an individual who finds it uncomfortable to walk that distance.

But the big surprise is the cost. According to Spin’s research, it's actually far more expensive to set up and maintain a station-based bike program compared to a stationless one – five times more expensive, to be exact.

Ko said the concept encourages cities to invest in bike racks (something many cities already do), but doesn’t require the massive outlay of investment that has been seen in New York or Toronto bike-share programs.

The concept does require the company to have staff on hand (night and day) to periodically retrieve and reposition bikes that are left in less-popular locations, and Ko didn’t say whether that overhead was factored into cost comparisons.

On its website, Spin says it plans to deploy 100,000 bicycles this year. That’s a lot of bikes, but it does allow for expansion to more U.S. metropolitan areas. Ko said working one-on-one with city officials is key to success in this business – something the company has benefited from in Austin. To that end, Spin already hired a rep to handle the process when it hopefully launches in San Francisco later this year.


Image credit: Pixabay

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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