The Digital Future of Bike-Shares Around the World

The explosive growth of bike-shares and how technology is bringing major changes

2004—the year that Facebook launched, Friends aired its final episode and, according to research recently published in Transport Reviews, a year of only 13 bike-share systems worldwide. That last statistic seems insignificant until you see that 10 years later the number of bike-share programs skyrocketed to 855.

Between the years of 2004 and 2014 the number of bike-shares in the world increased by 6,477 percent. Yeah, we had to double check the math too.

The explosive growth of bike-share systems is certainly impressive, but what’s next?

To answer that question, among others, researcher Elliot Fishman examined data available from around the world and compiled the report, “Bikeshare: A Review of Recent Literature.” Right now most bike-share systems are “third generation” systems, which means they have the ability to work with smartphone apps and accept credit cards, said the report; but change isn’t far off.

The first major technological leap predicted in the report is an increase in the use of GPS technology. Copenhagen's new bike-share program currently has a “GPS-embedded fleet as well as on-board tablet computer and Wi-Fi hotspot functionality” and SocialBicycles, in the U.S., also uses a solar-powered GPS to replace physical docking stations.

“As GPS becomes increasingly affordable, it appears likely that in the near future, the benefits will outweigh the costs for BSP (bike-share program) operators to install them across their bike-share fleet,” said the report.

Benefits of GPS technology could include ditching the physical docks, real-time tracking of bikes, increased security for bike-share operators and easier redistributing of cycles. GPS would also help researchers determine how bike-share systems are being used and it could help governments plan for bicycles.

Another major advancement that could change the world of bike-shares is the potential addition of e-bikes (electronic bicycles). As bike-shares have rapidly grown, so has the use and affordability of e-bikes, notes the report. Copenhagen and Madrid, along with other cities, have introduced e-bikes to their bike-share line-ups and Barcelona and Milan both plan to add e-bikes in 2015.

Adding e-bikes to bike-shares has the potential to increase ridership exponentially.

“Longer trips, challenging topography, excessive heat and other factors associated with physical exertion can act as barriers to transport cycling generally,” said the report. E-bikes might also make redistribution easier by increasing the number of riders willing to go up hill.

Going forward, the report highlights other areas of interest for researchers. Bike-share operators will likely be looking into how to rebalance their fleets more efficiently, how get drivers out of their cars and onto bikes and a big priority is finding a way to objectively measure the impact of bike-shares. The report highlights the need for data “in terms of climate change, congestion, air and noise quality, as well as health and time savings.”

Finding a way to quantify the benefits of the bike-share could have a huge impact. Not just in terms of growing the cycling community, but on transportation planning and on the way cities around the world function.