As Bike Sharing Grows, the Tech Behind It Gets Smarter

Bike sharing services across North America could be getting a little smarter. Starting next spring, bikes equipped with an on-board navigation system developed by SmartHalo will be available from the company that develops the bikes and technology used in the majority of large bike share systems.

Xavier Peich, the co-founder of Montreal-based SmartHalo, says PBSC Solutions first approached his company a year ago, looking to collaborate.

PBSC, also based in Montreal, developed the technology and the bikes used for public bike share programs in New York, Montreal, Toronto, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Boston, as well as in England and Australia.

Peich, whose company funded development of it’s turn-by-turn navigation bicycle-mounted navigation system, says that the deal with PBSC has the potential to be a “huge marketing tool” for his company – after all the plan is to put its system on thousands of bikes in cities that not only have millions of residents of their own but also attract millions of tourists every year.

“People who have no idea we exist will start using our products,” he says.

Still, it won’t be happening overnight.

Peich says his first priority finishing the consumer device for the backers who supported SmartHalo on Kickstarter.

That product, originally scheduled to be delivered in May, has now been pushed back to September. Peich says that’s because SmartHalo needs to get it right the first time.

“With hardware, you only get one chance,” he says.

There are still technical challenges to work through as well. The consumer version of the SmartHalo needs to be charged every few weeks, But the docks at PBSC bike stations currently don’t transfer any power to the bikes. However, the next iteration will enable this.

Even so, SmartHalo is already thinking about additional features geared towards bike-sharing services – like the ability to direct riders to the nearest station with empty space at the push of a button.

Peich says the first bike-share bikes with built-in SmartHalo navigation should start rolling out in the spring – initially it will be up to the operators of individual systems whether they’ll bring-in the new bikes.

But, with the technology set to become standard on the next generation of PBSC bikes, it will be rolling out across as an optional feature for all 15 cities the service operates in.

Breaking down North America’s bike share systems

There are three main bike share systems in North America – Montreal-based PBSC, New York-based Social Bicycles (SoBi) and Wisconsin-based BCycle .

PBSC was originally affiliated with Montreal’s Bixi bike-share system and owned by the city, it was later spun-off as a private company.

PBSC, SoBi and BCycle develop the technology and designs for bike-share bikes. The actual systems are run by a mixture of private companies, public-private partnerships and municipal agencies.

There are a few key differences between the two systems – PBSC and BCycle bikes have to be returned to a station at the end of a trip, while SoBi bikes can be parked anywhere within the system.

Payment also varies – SoBi bike users create an account through an app or at a kiosk and then, depending on the system can use a pin-code, tap a credit card or, in some cities, tap a public transit fare card, to unlock a bike.

PBSC bikes have required users to use a kiosk to check out a bike – and swipe their credit card, however some operators are now rolling-out systems that let users pay through an app or with a smart public transit fare card.

PBSC’s largest system is London, with 13,600 bikes. Montreal, New York and Chicago have over 5,000 bikes. Six other cities have over 1,000 bikes.

SoBi’s largest systems include the Westside Regional Bike Share program, which includes the Cities of Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, California and has over 1,000 bikes.

Vancouver’s new system, which launched on July 20, is starting with 250 but is set to grow to 1,500 bicycles by the end of the summer. The larges BCycle system is Los Angeles, which has 1,000 bikes and is set to expand to 4,000, if it’s successful.

Of course, these all pale in comparison to the bike share system in Hangzhou, China, which has  66,500 bikes.