Could Birmingham support a dockless bike-share system?

One of LimeBike’s dockless bicycles. Photo Credit: The Creative Gentleman’s Facebook page

Lindsey West, who works with Bantam Strategy Group, spearheaded the effort to make the Zyp BikeShare system a reality in Birmingham. While working at the Regional Planning Commission, West said she was “bit by the bike-share bug” and fondly referred to Zyp as “her oldest child” while presenting LimeBike, a dockless bike-share system, to the Transportation Committee last week.

So how exactly does it work? LimeBike is a dockless system that is accessed by using a smartphone app that locates and unlocks the bike after payment. Currently, the system has been implemented in 25 cities and 12 universities across the country. West explained that unlike Zyp, which requires a docking station that could impede on right-of-ways in residential areas, LimeBike could help serve those who live in Birmingham’s 99 neighborhoods, especially those that lack access to Zyp or other transportation options.

Cities such as Chicago, Washington DC and Seattle all have dockless bike-share systems. The LimeBike app will work in any city that has the system in place. “LimeBike is funded very well,” West told the committee. “The same folks that are funding Facebook, Square, Zipcar are funding LimeBike…Do I think they’re going to be gone in a month, a year or three years? No I do not.” Perhaps most importantly, she said, LimeBike could come to Birmingham with absolutely no cost to the city.

LimeBike’s team will manage the inventory as well as customer service and all the details that go into making sure the system is working effectively for residents.

According to a Feb. 15, 2018 article in TechCrunch, LimeBike has raised $132 million in funding, eclipsing the previous goal of $50 million. Brendan Wallace, co-founder of Fifth Wall Ventures, one of the venture capital firms that has invested in the company, said that bike-share systems are something that real estate developers look for — a component that could help drive economic development, not just downtown, but in Birmingham’s neighborhoods as well.

“Docked bike-sharing is insufficient or underutilized,” Wallace said. “We became excited about LimeBike because it’s moving toward growth. We also like partnerships with cities and how they approach where they’re launching, as well as how they approach partnerships with real estate owners.”

When a person needs to locate a LimeBike, they can pull up the app on their phone and find one nearby (the goal is to have dedicated parking spots for the bikes in areas that can accommodate such a space). Each bike is equipped with GPS and three Quick Response (QR; also known as a two-dimensional barcode) codes that a user will hold their phone up to and snap a quick photo with the app. A locking mechanism on the rear wheel, will unlock and riders will be able to then use the bike.

“It makes a nice little ring when you unlock it,” West said. “It just makes you want to have a fruity beverage…If you try and put a bike in your car and the rear wheel is locked, it yells at you and tells you the police have been called. It’s loud and alarming and because there is live GPS, we can see where it is at all times.”

Screenshot from the LimeBike presentation during the Transportation Committee Meeting

Each bike is outfitted with a small solar panel to charge the battery, which unlocks the bike. Unlike traditional bikes, LimeBikes have foam tires to prevent flats if a user happens to run over a nail or something. The fleet team monitors the wear and tear on the tires and replaces them accordingly.

As for the rides, a dollar will buy 30 minutes; a monthly membership of $30 gets users 100 rides. Students and low-income residents are able to get 50 percent off the memberships. LimeBike offers a texting option as well for those who do not have a smart phone. The Geographic Information Systems data (GIS) will be compiled and made available so city officials can see which corridors are being utilized the most, an important tool for future city planning efforts.

“What would a potential roll out look like for the city of Birmingham?” asked Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, who is the chair of the Transportation Committee.

“One it would be getting the agreement in place — a nonexclusive franchise agreement is what is desired. That would allow Zyp and LimeBike to coexist,” West said. “Likely they would want to roll out a minimum of 750 bicycles to start, but if you let them, they’ll roll out 2,000 bikes.” She continued by saying if this were to become a regional system, serving other cities in the area, there could be as many as 7,000 bikes in rotation. “Obviously that wouldn’t happen overnight…these don’t just need to be downtown, they need to be throughout the whole city.”

As the presentation came to a close, O’Quinn said “This really offers the opportunity for us to allow the area that’s not served by Zyp to have access to a bike-share system. I guess the Zyp footprint is relatively small compared to the 129 square miles of the city’s landmass. That leaves a lot to be desired.”

West said the goal should be to go into Ensley, West End, North Birmingham, Roebuck Parkway and other communities that are not currently part of Zyp’s footprint.

While last week’s presentation was informative and the councilors seemed eager to discuss the possible future of LimeBike in Birmingham, there has not been an item brought before the committee as of this writing. But that could soon change.

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Tweets from The Birmingham City Council in Birmingham, Alabama

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