Special Report: Cycling

More Details on Bike Share Proposal

Social Bicycles provides more detail on how the bike system works and what they are doing to protect the security and privacy of user data.

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 04, 2013

At Monday's Public Works Committee meeting, councillors unanimously approved the plan to establish a new bike share in Hamilton. Assuming the plan is also approved by Council, it could be up and running by Spring 2014.

Social Bicycles bike (Image Credit: Social Bicycles)
Social Bicycles bike (Image Credit: Social Bicycles)

You can watch a livestream of the meeting, provided courtesy of Joey Coleman.

The committee expressed lots of concern about the capital cost of the program, which is being covered entirely by Metrolinx through its Quick Wins program, and the matter of financial liability in the operation of the program, which the contract places entirely on the successful proponent, Social Bicycles (SoBi).

Peter Topalovic, the public works manager who has shepherded the bike share through its development, confirmed and reconfirmed that the capital costs are fully covered and the operating costs are entirely the responsibility of SoBi, which will operate the program through a local not-for-profit organization under the five-year contract.

In the case that the operator cannot sustain the business, the City has an opportunity to find another operator to take it over, or alternately to shut down the program and sell the bicycles.

About the Bike Share

Each bike includes an integrated U-lock connected to a GPS-enabled on-board computer to track the bike's location, who has signed it out and when/where it is locked and released.

The system also tracks bike locations in real-time. From a web browser or mobile device, you will be able to see where the nearest bike is located, how many bikes are available in each station, and so on, and even make a reservation.

After reserving a bike, you can unlock it with your PIN code and ride to your destination. Once you arrive, just lock your bike at the nearest bike corral and the bike is released from your account.

According to Patrick T. Hoffman, Business Development and Project Manager at SoBi, "Our bicycles' on-board computers are recharged by a solar panel as well as by a front-hub dynamo. Each bike comes with capacitors to store excess power in reserve as well as back-up batteries."

According to the plan, 650 bicycles will be established at 65 stations across a service area that includes wards 1-4 (lower city), 7, 8 (mountain) and 13 (Dundas). (City Staff have said they will try to provide a map of proposed station locations. RTH will update this article if and when we receive a copy.)

The city will have an option to purchase additional bikes at a fixed price for the five-year duration of the contract. That price has yet to be finalized once Council gives the final approval of the bike plan. Council will consider the plan next Wednesday, December 11.

Seasonal Availability

Under the proposed plan, SoBi will operate the bike share for 8-9 months of the year, similar to Buffalo NY and Minneapolis MN.

Hoffman added, "That said, we understand the desire for systems to operate year round and we will make every effort to operate the system for as many months as our operating entity deems feasible.

"Given recent trends within the industry (Divvy and CoGo for instance) we are strong proponents of year round operations while recognizing that not all markets warrant the additional operational costs they may experience."

Role of Stations

Because the technology is self-contained in the bikes, the stations will be cheaper and simpler than Bixi stations. However, the assumption is that bikes will be returned to one of the stations after use.

Hoffman explained, "Our bikes make use of both RFID and GPS technology to know when they are locked at these locations."

He added, "All of our programs allow for their members to lock bickes at public spots beyond these specific locations for a minimal rebalancing fee determined by each program. We typically advise this fee for out-of-hub locking (different than putting the bike on hold) be between $2 and $3."

However, if another member signs a bike out from an out-of-hub location and returns it to a station, their account is credited with the rebalancing fee.

Membership and use pricing for the program has not yet been finalized, and once again will be confirmed once Council approves the bike plan.

Data Privacy and Security

One question that has been raised is the matter of information privacy: who will have access to the realtime location data of SoBi users, and what is being done to ensure that the data is secure from malicious hackers?

Hoffman explained that data is encrypted before transmission, and access to the SoBi database is restricted "to SoBi employees, contractors, and agents who need to know that information in order to process it for us, and who are subject to strict contractual confidentiality obligations".

According to City staff, the SoBi data infrastructure has been audited by a reputable computer security firm to ensure it is following best practices for data storage and security.

Members' usage activity is kept private, though members have the option "to share this information graphically with "friends" within our app or externally via Twitter and Facebook." In addition, members can download their own usage data for their personal use. However, the default setting is for this data to be private.

In 2014, SoBi plans to launch a public API, or a web-based service in which third parties can access SoBi data. However, "None of this data will include our members' personal information."

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

32 Comments

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2013 at 15:39:23

The close grain:

https://app.socialbicycles.com/privacy

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By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2013 at 15:51:43

This is exciting - a very progressive and versatile system. Can't wait!

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By Mark-AlanWhittle (registered) - website | Posted December 04, 2013 at 17:38:58

Annual Memberships

Student/Senior: $60 Adult: $80

Day Pass All users: $5

User Fees 1st Hour: Free

Each additional hour: $4

This fee structure is subject to change.

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By thanks (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2013 at 17:49:53 in reply to Comment 95531

thanks... where do you find this info?

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By kdslote (registered) | Posted December 04, 2013 at 17:46:18

I'm excited for this, but disappointed it won't run all year. I was hoping to use this as a winter cycling option - especially for days when it's only practical to bike commute one way due to weather.

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By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2013 at 17:49:31 in reply to Comment 95533

I wonder if, after an initial "pilot" year, they will recognize a demand for full year service. Maybe reduced service with fewer bikes out in the field? In montreal they take all the bikes out of service for winter so they can fix them. It always seemed odd to me because it means that you can't rely on bixi as a primary transportation solution unless you hibernate

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By Gibsonian (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2013 at 18:53:19

Can anyone tell me the benefits of a program like this? Cycling in this city is terrifying as it is, and without a safe, useful, connected, network of bike lanes this seems like a good idea that's being implemented far too early. Sorry if this has been brought up before.

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By grahamm (registered) | Posted December 04, 2013 at 22:09:03 in reply to Comment 95538

One way I'll be making use of the bikes is on days when I've driven to work but have to go to a meeting that feels too close to drive, but too far to walk (or if I'm late!). I will be able to grab a bike and not have to bring one with me that day or store one at the office. I used Bixi while in Ottawa for a conference and found that when bike are available and you don't have to worry about where to lock them up, they're a really attractive transportation option.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 04, 2013 at 20:02:11 in reply to Comment 95538

I wrote a run-down of the benefits this past summer. Check it out here: Hamilton Magazine - Bikeshare

The bottom line is that bikeshare bridges the gap between transit and walking, gets more people on bikes, lowers the barrier to entry, and usually results in municipalities responding to the new demand through better infrastructure.

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By Kevin Love (anonymous) | Posted December 05, 2013 at 22:17:32 in reply to Comment 95539

Sean, I entirely 100% agree with what you wrote in this magazine article. Particularly this statement:

"A properly designed bikeshare program will have depots spaced throughout the city in such a way that you are never more than a block or two from a bike."

Of course, with 65 stations in this vast service area, this is mathematically impossible. Hence, the program is set up for failure.

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By Mers (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2013 at 23:41:35

This is all fine just as long as the bikes aren't fluoridated!

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By Kevin Love (anonymous) | Posted December 05, 2013 at 08:45:35

This is rather bad news.

Bike share is public transportation. To be successful, it must provide reliable convenient transportation from all origin-destination points from A to B in the service area. This means there is always a bike available within 200-300 metres. There is a reason why that is normal bus stop spacing.

A mere 650 bikes, spread over the geographic area indicated, cannot provide that level of service. It is a mathematical impossibility. I therefore predict failure with this inadequate implementation.

I love bike share. It has the potential to transform Hamilton the way it has transformed Paris and is transforming New York. Once again, Hamilton takes a great idea and botches it with a lousy implementation. Pity.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted December 05, 2013 at 10:40:43

GPS is not a broadcasting technology, and neither is RFID. How do they plan to find abandoned/stolen bikes. GPS tells the bike where it is, RFID lets you detect the bike's ID at close-range, but neither of those technologies will make a long-distance transmission to say "hey, the bike is over here!"

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 05, 2013 at 11:15:28 in reply to Comment 95554

I believe the data is transmitted through cell network.

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By Simon B (anonymous) | Posted December 06, 2013 at 03:09:15

Didn't a similar program just go bankrupt in Toronto? Did they explain why they see this working out better in Hamilton than it did in Toronto? Just curious.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 06, 2013 at 09:38:52 in reply to Comment 95580

I think part of the excitement about this is that it's a new and totally different implementation model with a lot less up front cost for proprietary station infrastructure, and better flexibility. If, say, certain pockets of the city see much higher usage, the system can easily be tweaked to accommodate.

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By tvraon (anonymous) | Posted December 06, 2013 at 06:22:52

This arrangement aid out a pattern of crisscrossed parallel bars for all the city's future thoroughfares

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By Brian (registered) | Posted December 06, 2013 at 17:46:25

What about lawsuits? RoD rash is inevitable.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 06, 2013 at 18:01:34 in reply to Comment 95636

Under the contract, SoBi assumes all financial and legal liability.

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By ridemorebikes (anonymous) | Posted December 07, 2013 at 15:04:13

There will be a waiver, I'm sure. But with all the successful systems in existence, surely this has been considered and dealt with. There is probably already some case law.

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By grahamm (registered) | Posted December 07, 2013 at 17:48:30

In Hoebooken they launched with 25 bikes. 650 spread around with an app to find the closest? Could be better than the bixi model for a couple reasons. One, it is possible to leave a bike anywhere rather than having to find a stand. Second, there is a chance that the app will direct you to a bike that is conceivably closer than a hypothetical stand.

What will ensure it works is users. So if we want it to work, we need to vote with our wallets.

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By Kevin Love (anonymous) | Posted December 07, 2013 at 23:33:45

It is interesting to compare Hamilton's proposed roll-out with the criteria for success in the new Institute for Transportation and Development Policy's "Bike Share Planning Guide."

This may be found at:

http://www.itdp.org/documents/ITDP_Bike_Share_Planning_Guide.pdf

Please note the minimum requirements of 19-15 stations per square km to give 200-300 metre spacing between bike-share stations. Also, the minimum requirement to have 10-30 bikes for every 1,000 residents. For example, Paris has over 100 bikes per 1,000 residents.

Compare these minimum requirements with the Hamilton proposals for a mere 650 bikes.

Conclusion: The Hamilton plan is a plan for failure due to failing to meet the minimum requirements for enough bicycles to make the system one of reliable public transportation. There is a mathematical guarantee that a bike will NOT be available at a convenient location when it is needed.

Kevin's recommendation: If 650 bikes in 65 stations is all we've got, it would be best to launch the program with a service area confined to McMaster University and adjacent student housing. That is a small enough area to achieve the required bike and station density for success.

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By Kevin Love (anonymous) | Posted December 08, 2013 at 00:06:22

Typo correction: should be 10-16 stations per square km per the ITDP guide.

Let's look at the data for the proposed service area of Wards 1-4, 7-8 and 13 from:

http://www.map.hamilton.ca/Static/PDFs/WardMaps/AllWards_Statistics.pdf

27953 acres = 113 square km requires between 1,130-1,808 stations. Population of 274,930 requires between 2,749-8,247 bicycles. Note that these are minimum standards to avoid failure.

Conclusion: 650 bikes in 65 stations is grossly inadequate for the stated service area. Failure is guaranteed.

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By Kevin Love (anonymous) | Posted December 08, 2013 at 19:31:43

I highly recommend the video associated with the ITDP planning guide. From the excellent Clarence Eckerson of Streetfilms at:

http://www.streetfilms.org/riding-the-bike-share-boom/

The video does a great job of showing on the ground successful bike share systems while describing what makes them successful.

Hint: 650 bikes in a Hamilton service area with a population of 274,930 people just does not cut it. This is a recipe for failure.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted December 09, 2013 at 12:49:32 in reply to Comment 95716

Well, if 650 bikes is insufficient to meet the demand, the results of the program will be so impressive (i.e. bikes utilized 95% of the time, people e-mailing councillors to complain there are not enough bikes at their local stations) the financial success and political pressure should insure that the system is increased in size over time.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 09, 2013 at 13:50:26 in reply to Comment 95742

Unfortunately that's not how it works. Success requires access to bikes within a block or two walk, otherwise the transportation benefit isn't achieved and usage numbers will suffer.

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By Kevin Love (anonymous) | Posted December 09, 2013 at 14:14:37 in reply to Comment 95743

Sean is right. What will happen is that users will log in, be told that there is no bike nearby and abandon the system in frustration.

Bike share is public transportation. For it to work it has to be reliable. My boss has a weird expectation that I'll reliably show up to work every morning. The transportation system to get me there must be equally reliable or it is no good.

If users cannot rely upon a bike being always available at bus stop distances of 1-2 blocks away, then they will (quite rightly) judge the system a failure and abandon it.

Once again, Hamilton takes a great idea and botches it with lousy implementation. Pity.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted December 09, 2013 at 15:49:48 in reply to Comment 95745

It's too early to give up on it yet. It's not even ratified at council til thursday, let alone any actual station locations finalized. Lots of time still to get it right...

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted December 09, 2013 at 14:10:36

I'm a BIXI Toronto user and you are spot on in your analysis. In my first year I had several instances of bike racks being full or bikes not being available. The rack by my work was frequently full and so, predictably, I refrained from using the service to get to work. After a while the problem seemed to get better and only then did I risk biking again (the nearest station is about 600m away across 2 busy roads). Finding another station can be time consuming and if you're using the bike to get to work or an appointment, time is something you don't have.

In terms of safety there are no helmets to rent (not that you'd want to...yuk) but I've found that drivers give you a wide berth because the bike is very heavy and Mary Poppins like. Drivers seem to sense that you need a lot of space.

I also had instances of racks being moved, and bikes that don't lock properly. Overall the service is good however it needs to be expanded so I can use it beyond the current limited borders.

The price is right too. My annual subscription is around $95 and I get plenty of use out of it (work commute, downtown meetings, meeting friends etc).

In conclusion, bike share is one of those services that need to either go big or go home. Good luck Hamilton!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 09, 2013 at 14:19:33 in reply to Comment 95744

The rack by my work was frequently full and so, predictably, I refrained from using the service to get to work.

The nice thing about the SoBi model is that this isn't a problem. If the rack is full, you can lock the bike up somewhere else. This will come with a modest 'rebalancing fee' of $2-3, but people who sign out a bike that is not locked at a station and return it to a station will get a $2-3 credit so it's revenue neutral.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted December 09, 2013 at 15:04:37 in reply to Comment 95746

... so everything is a rack? Neato!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 09, 2013 at 15:31:55 in reply to Comment 95748

The preference is still to lock to a docking station, and you will pay modestly for the convenience of parking elsewhere, but yeah - it's a lot more flexible than the Bixi model.

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