Up next: App-enabled bike sharing

Five years ago, Ryan Rzepecki was riding the streets of New York City on a child-sized Huffy bike he borrowed from a friend. Today, Rzepecki is hoping to change the way everybody shares bikes.

Rzepecki’s love of biking led him to borrow the Huffy. It’s also led him on a mission to change the bike-sharing model. Taking advantage of new social and mobile technology and cheaper startup costs, Rzepecki believes he’s hit the target.

His new company, Social Bicycles, also called SoBi, will launch a pilot program “at the end of the summer” in Buffalo and two unnamed West Coast cities soon after, Rzepecki says. It’s not just the model that he has going for him, it’s also the data.

‘I looked at the model in Europe, where there are big docking stations and kiosks,” said Rzepecki. “It’s very expensive. I thought, what if they have smart bikes rather than smart bike racks?”

It is that idea of a smart bike – and a mobile app to connect all those bikes – that is at the heart of Social Bicycles. Once you subscribe to the service, the app will tell where the closest sharable bike is and will allow you to reserve it. Once you get to the bike, the app provides a confirmation pin to release the custom bike-immobilizing lock, allowing you to get on your way. The lock contains the bike’s GPS unit, which tracks your ride and makes sure the next subscriber can find and reserve the bike once you’re done.

While SoBi will provide the bikes and locks and app, they don’t plan to actually run the service, Rzepecki said. Instead, they will go through a city or a local business. Then it’s up to the local representative to determine how much to charge for the SoBi subscription. In the U.S. there are already a number of cities offering community riding services through Alta Bike Share, including Washington, D.C. and Boston, Mass. New York City will launch a version in July. Like services in European cities, Alta uses specially designed bike racks to run the sharing system.

Rzepecki is convinced that his SoBi approach is an improvement as it will allow a city, community center or even a bike tour company to use existing infrastructure, since the bikes can be stored on any rack. Rzepecki says the cost of European-style smart-rak programs at $5,000 per bike, while SoBi provides 50 bikes at $1,100 each. But it isn’t just the cost savings and flexibility that make SoBi a better option, Rzepecki argues. A city planner by training, he says the local representative will also get a treasure trove of data thanks to the smart bikes.

“One of the huge benefits, will be trying to understand the data that can comes out of this,” said Rzepecki. “Unencumbered data that shows what routes people are taking or where you should be installing bike racks.”

This potential has Rzepecki giddy. Over the course of a year working on bike transit at the New York City Department of Transportation, Rzepecki says he understands just how valuable the data can be to a city that needs to track this information for smarter lanes and a safer biking experience. With the permission of the subscribers, planners will be able to track important details about residents’ transit decisions. Do they primarily jump on a ride to get to or from work? Do they opt for a bike just for quick errands or to zoom past cars on crowded city streets?

SoBi isn’t alone in trying to reinvent the local transit-sharing model. Scoot Networks, for example, wants to do for scooters what Zipcar has done for cars, hoping to launch in the San Francisco area this year. Another Bay area company, Local Motion, aims to leverage enhanced golf carts to do the same. Paired with the smart bike technology that SoBi has created, Rzepecki says he can see any number of models working.

“We definitely see the software, electronics and tracking package, working for other parts of transportation,” said Rzepecki. “We’re Interested in looking at other modes. You don’t need a five ton steel cage to go a few miles.”

Nice to have options, besides that child-size Huffy.