Bike Sharing, Unlocked



When Russell Meddin began reading about Mobike in April 2016, he felt he’d come across something big. The private bike-sharing company had begun serving Chinese cities without the use of docking stations. 

Rather than renting a bicycle from a quarter-block-sized station, and returning it to one, Mobike allows users to leave their bicycles anywhere.

“I looked at it and said, ‘Oh my goodness. This is going to make all the difference in the way the public uses bicycles—and want to use bicycles,’” says the Logan Square resident. “The design was so forward and so different that anybody will want to use it.”

Meddin sort of has a knack for these things. He was the first to openly advocate for bike sharing in Philadelphia, all the way back in 2006. He began doing so after a trip to Lyon, France, where he saw people utilizing a public two-wheeled option. In Lyon—a mostly flat metropolis sandwiched between two rivers—Meddin saw an opportunity, and he founded Bike Share Philadelphia to help publicize the concept. 

He’d see his dreams come to fruition when Indego, Philadelphia’s public bike-sharing system, launched in 2015.

But, he says, the world of bike sharing has moved past Philadelphia over the last three years. Today, cities around the world have made dockless bike sharing a reality. A number of American cities are piloting dockless systems right now, and according to a recently released request for information from the city, we could be next. 

Dockless bikes can go—and, more importantly, be left—anywhere within a prewritten, geocoded boundary, not just the Strawberry Mansion, 52nd Street to Passyunk to Fishtown boundaries where Indego’s docks exist. The digital geocoding built into the bicycles and the system that runs them helps the company keep track of where the bicycles are, and who is using them. 

Dockless bike sharing could essentially deem current boundaries obsolete. It could also add a lot more bikes.

After Seattle’s bike-sharing system went belly-up last year, that city allowed three private bike-sharing companies to move into the city for a pilot. Those companies, according to a PlanPhilly report, quickly parked about 9,000 bicycles all over the city. “For comparison, it took Indego over two years to ramp up to 1,200 bikes and 120 stations,” noted PlanPhilly’s Jim Saksa.

On its surface, this new bike-sharing system seems like a no-brainer. But the new technology has some worried.

The most common refrain: What about all those bikes left in the street, blocking sidewalks, ADA-accessible ramps or just tossed aside as trash? 

“This morning I was driving on Rock Creek Parkway and there was a trashed bike under a bridge. How the hell did it get there?” asks a Washington, D.C., resident who asked not to be named due to working in the bicycle industry. “Yesterday, I saw one under a pile of garbage bags, dirty carpets and a trash can… I cannot tell you how many bikes I’ve seen in stupid spots or already trashed.”

The solution? Education, says Meddin. If users are taught how to use the tech, and are potentially given incentives for parking the bike correctly, dockless bike sharing could work out quite well for Philadelphia.

“This is an item in the new shared economy to be shared,” he says. “And the people who are interested in using this should think about the next user and park the bike correctly. Education, as we know with everything else in the bicycle world, shared-use or not, is the key issue.”

Randy Lobasso is the communications manager at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

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