Most bike sharing schemes are based around fixed hubs. You take a bike at one location and return it to another point in the network. Social Bicycles is different: You can leave the bike anywhere within a designated area. The bike—fitted with GPS, a cell link, and a computer—is the star, not the docking system.
That's good for a couple of reasons. One, it's much cheaper—about half the price, according to Social Bicycle's CEO Ryan Rzepecki. And two, the infrastructure is more flexible. While schemes like New York's Citi Bike operate from heavy fixed-length corrals, free-floating bikes can use conventional racks, minimizing neighborhood disruption.
"Our system behaves just like an stationary dock system, but it has other upsides," Rzepecki says. "The stations can be regular pieces of steel that are cheaper to install. You can put in racks that better reflect the community and are more context-sensitive."
You rent a Social bike either by booking in advance, or going up to one in the street. An app shows you where available ones are located. You punch in an account number to a keypad on the back, and enter a PIN code (like using an ATM). That releases a yellow lock, which you place in a holder at the side.
Social Bicycles is currently run out of a small office on Manhattan's Lower East Side. I visited recently to try out the bike: it was comfortable to sit on, felt lighter than a Citi Bike (which are tanks) and is nice to look at. Rzepecki explained that it's modeled after a classic Dutch design (see pictures in the slide show).
The bikes are currently in four locations: Hoboken, New Jersey (25 bikes), San Francisco airport (40), Sun Valley, Idaho (18), and Buffalo (70). And next year, there'll be two more: Phoenix (500 bikes) and Tampa (300).
Most bike shares use the fixed hub model. But the free-floating idea is catching on as well. ViaCycle, which we covered here, is on Georgia Tech and George Mason University campuses, and the company recently launched in downtown Las Vegas. Germany has several free-form schemes—notably Call a Bike, which launched in 2002, and is operated by the national railway.
Rzepecki is keen to stress that social bikes are not as free-range as they look (probably because some people have criticized the German bikes as being hard to find). GPS tracking means operators always know where they are, he says, and there are incentives to keep rides within certain areas. In Hoboken, if you leave a bike in a different location from where you picked it up, there's an extra fee. If you take it back to the starting point, there's no extra charge. And, if you put a bike in a location that needs a bike, you get a credit. Out-of-area docking costs $10.
"Potentially you have this self-balancing system," he says. "The economic penalty and the technology leads to the effective return to the hubs the same way as the docking stations out there do."
With U.S. bike sharing more than doubling in the last year (the Earth Policy Institute has a good run-down), there's probably room for several models. Free-float systems could make sense for cities and towns that want to avoid high upfront costs, and want more dock flexibility. Early projects, like the ones in Hoboken and Las Vegas, will help make the case either way.