If you’re living in Toronto or Westmount in Quebec, you’ve likely already passed the dockless bright orange bikes popping up on city streets.
The bikes belong to Dropbike, a Toronto-based startup that has undertaken seven pilot projects for its “smart bikes” in Ontario and Quebec cities since June. So far, the bikes have found a home in four college and university campuses around Toronto — including Ryerson University and the University of Toronto — and the company launched its newest pilots at Humber College’s North and Lakeshore campuses on Thursday.
Dropbike is also running pilot programs in Kingston and Queen’s University.
“We’re very early on so we’re still doing a lot of pilots, and universities are taking a liking to the dockless system,” said Emmett Meacher, Dropbike’s manager of business development. “It’s great access for students, it’s more convenient and really affordable. It was part of our process a bit to get the university students involved.”
“A lot of municipalities get very excited about being able to provide their residents with a bike share and at a zero taxpayer cost.”
– Emmett Meacher
Bikes are located at “havens” — small rectangles that typically hold three or four bikes — and to access a bike, users must download the app and use it to scan the bike’s QR code. It costs $1 per hour to rent a bike, and users are charged a $49 deposit.
Once a user scans the QR code it “associates the user with that bike,” Meacher said. “We know at all times where every single bike is.” Like Bixi, Dropbike has the ability, if necessary, to penalize users for improper use. “We’ve added quite a bit of accountability into the system.”
To get around using docks, Dropbike equipped the bikes with internet and bluetooth connections, and put a lock on the back wheel that activates when the bike isn’t in use, to prevent thieves from hopping on and riding away. “We’ve taken all the technology on the dock and put it on the bike and the smartphone app,” Meacher said.
In both Toronto and Montreal, bike sharing systems are owned and operated by the cities. Toronto Parking Authority will spend $1.7 million on the Bike Share Toronto in 2017; in 2016, it spent just under $1 million. The program was expanded last year with $4.9 million in funding from Metrolinx, and in August, the system used $4 million from the federal government and the city to bring the total number of bikes to 2,750, and the number of stations to 270.
Montreal’s Bixi system, which covers 11 boroughs and two cities on the island, including Westmount, cost $9.01 million to run in 2016, including the bikes and docking infrastructure, advertising and “other charges.” The city’s contribution to Bixi’s $9.6-million revenue was $2.9 million.
Backed by an angel investor, who Meacher declined to name, Dropbike is operating a zero-subsidies model. “We don’t make money from selling bikes and docks to cities,” Meacher said. “We make money from people actually riding the bikes themselves. As long as we can get people on bikes riding, we’re able to make this free for cities.”
Without the docks, “we’ve reduced all that overhead cost and we can ship the savings to users,” Meacher said. “The investment isn’t as much either; we’ve removed a huge portion. The only investment we make is putting the bikes down on the ground.”
He admitted “the back-end economics are extremely fluid” currently, and will depend on how many cities the company operates in and the number of bikes on the street.
“We have the ability to be anywhere in a city and don’t have to wait for the expansion of docks.”
“We do need a lot of people to get on bikes, and to start thinking of bikes as a means of transportation,” he said. “There will, of course, be a period of time where it ramps up…but we’re seeing a good amount of riders now. Because the system is so affordable I think we’ll continue to see growth and adoption.”
The company said it has around 300 havens and more than 500 bikes across all three cities. More than 2,200 users have taken 10,000 rides.
Both Toronto and Montreal have strong cycling cultures, bolstered in part by their bike-share programs. But Meacher said Dropbike doesn’t see itself as a competitor to Bixi or Bike Share Toronto, and could instead be a complementary service.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re trying to be a direct competitor. We understand and appreciate that cities have invested taxpayers’ money into these systems,” he said. “We think our system is serving a bit of a different market, because we have the ability to be anywhere in a city and don’t have to wait for the expansion of docks.”
He suggested that Dropbike could better serve suburban areas, and riders who might not want to commit to riding a bike “every single day forever,” like seasonal cyclists, tourists, and students who might find the price point more affordable.
Dropbike began approaching municipalities and universities earlier this year – it was founded in March – and launched its first pilot in Kingston with 100 bikes. Meacher said the company is currently in talks with other cities and campuses. “There are many cities across Canada with [a population of] 100,000, with downtown cores that could probably support this kind of free bike sharing system,” he said, adding that “a lot of municipalities get very excited about being able to provide their residents with a bike share, and at a zero taxpayer cost.”