New York design team peddles bike sharing system for cities, college campuses

As a commuting cyclist, I've noticed one thing about non-cyclists: They massively underestimate the cost of purchasing a bike.

Friends and acquaintances often approach me about buying their first bicycle since they were about 14, and the story usually goes like this: They've got $100 and they'd like to get their hands on "something decent." Well, eager cycling noob, if your idea of something decent looks like the peeling Schwinn buried in your dad's garage -- with no safety gear, locking mechanism or flat protection -- then baby, you're in luck.

However, college students who want to pedal around town in comfort without dropping $600 on a respectable beginner bike can take heart: The Social Bicycle System (SoBi) might just come to your penny-pinched rescue in the near future.

SoBi, a bicycle sharing system currently based in New York City, allows users to pick up and drop off bikes at any normal city bike rack. Roving cyclists can use a computer, a streetside SoBi kiosk or the nifty SoBi iPhone app to locate and reserve a bike, which they then check out for a specified period of time. It's essentially a cycling version of a Zipcar -- but the real sell lies in SoBi's unique cost-cutting take on bike sharing.

Thanks to the success and popularity of systems such as Paris's Velib' and Montreal's Bixi program, bike sharing has gained serious attention from urban planners and media commentators in recent years; Time Magazine, for example, ranked Bixi 19th on their list of the year's 50 Best Inventions in 2008. However, most of these programs generally follow the template made famous by the Velib' -- cities must invest in specially-designed bicycles, which fit into custom docking stations governed by automated kiosks. If that sounds expensive, it is: Cities generally need to plunk down $3,000 or $4,000 per bicycle just to get one of these systems up and running.

SoBi, on the other hand, came up with a specialized all-in-one locking mechanism that attaches to almost any average bicycle and locks up to any normal bike rack. The SoBi lock, which sort of looks like a grayish George Lucas take on a standard cycling pannier rack, provides GPS and mobile wireless communication with the SoBi computer network inside a single 8-inch by 8-inch unit. All that scaling down and cutting back on infrastructure results in a massive savings on cost compared to traditional systems: SoBi claims they can produce and sell the units for about $500 each.

Even though that doesn't yet factor in the actual bicycles, buyers can source their own bikes at their discretion, which means that SoBi could easily chop the start-up costs of bike-sharing programs by more than half.

SoBi comes from the mind of founder Ryan Rzepecki, a cycling advocate and enthusiast who previously worked for the New York City Department of Transportation's cycling program. Rzepecki collaborated with industrial designer Ted Ullrich to refine his concept and develop the lock design over the course of a couple of months. The result, Rzepecki told Money College via e-mail, should make SoBi-equipped bicycles available to dabbling cyclists for "a low monthly or annual charge that is much less than the cost of buying or maintaining a bicycle."

The team will roll out their system's first test run in New York City this fall, but college students can also hold out hope for a SoBi program on their local campus in the future. Rzepecki told Money College that he and the SoBi team plan to market their invention extensively to colleges and universities, which they believe provide an ideal setting for a low-cost bike sharing program.

"American universities and college towns are one of our primary markets," he wrote. "[SoBi] should allow students to cross a sprawling campus much faster and easier."

Still, even SoBi's innovative design will have to deal with the twin scourges of bicycle sharing programs worldwide: vandalism and theft. It's simply far easier to steal or destroy a rented bicycle than a rented car due to the lack of license plates or registration, and bike-sharing enthusiasts who hope to rely on common decency and chain-of-hands cycling camaraderie might want to check the numbers on Paris's Velib'. As of August 2009, The Paris City Council had replaced a whopping 16,000 of the 20,600 JCDecaux bicycles they purchased in 2009 -- thieves made off with about 8,000 of the bikes, vandals destroyed most of the rest, and a final 100 of the poor cycles wound up at the bottom of the Seine River. And the Velib', by the way, is often regarded as one of the great triumphs in bike sharing history.

Still, Rzepecki said he believes the SoBi team have created a locking system that's about as resistant to leverage and prying attacks as possible. As for how users treat the bikes once they've legitimately checked them out -- well, we'll have to wait and see.

"We're hoping to develop a culture around SoBi which will encourage people to respect the bikes," he said. "Rather than a top-down system run by a large corporation, we hope to engage the community during the planning and implementation phase so that our system is more like early community bike sharing programs."

SoBi is currently running for $50,000 worth of funding in Pepsi's "Good Idea" contest, so if you want to help launch mobile bike sharing on a nationwide scale, you can vote for them here.
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