It can be tough out there as a bicycle in a bike-share fleet, endlessly unlocked via an app, pedaled around and then left behind before the whole process repeats itself.
The companies behind the growing trend of bike-sharing optimize the vehicles for high frequency use — but on top of that, the bikes need even more protection from vandals.
The shared bikes get used a lot more than your average bicycle, so durability is an issue on top of any tampering. Bike-share company Ofo has logged more than 32 million rides globally. Jump bikes, the red e-bike-share Uber recently acquired, have about six trips every day per bicycle in San Francisco. The average bike trip is just over a half mile.
Product and design teams that build, maintain, and redesign the bikes shared how they handle all the wear, tear, and abuse. It might not be obvious, but small details like anti-theft nuts and bolts or spoke-less wheels can make for a smoother, safer ride and a less appealing target.
Ofo offers traditional pedal-powered bicycles as part of its bike-share in more than 30 American cities, but coming this summer is a yellow e-bike with a battery on board. After 12 iterations of the company’s custom-built bicycle, Ofo’s senior project manager Gideon Hod said the e-bike evolved into existence.
After looking at an early version of the battery-powered bicycle a few weeks ago, I was struck by some design details. Hod said “pain points” from previous bike models, rider feedback, city comments, and Ofo’s own operations teams all came together to build this bike.
In the image above you’ll notice the wheels don’t have traditional spokes. The criss-crossing wires were prone to being cut or damaged in crashes. The frame is a solid piece of magnesium alloy and so is the newly designed basket. “Pieces can be pulled apart, bent, ripped off,” Hod detailed. Now “it won’t get bent if the bike falls over.” Even the headlight is built into the basket so that it can’t be broken off.
Basically if something can be ripped off or cut, it will be.
All the electronics are built into the frame, so the circuit board or GPS unit can’t be detached. Cities are happy about this design element since the bikes can always be found through GPS tracking — wherever the bike goes, the tech is in it, guaranteed. The brake lines are also hidden so vandals can’t maliciously cut them. The tires are a solid piece of rubber that can’t be deflated or slashed — it’s all about airless tires when fighting against bike vandals.
Even something as benign as the fender needed to be reworked. Hod said Ofo is now using elastic polypropylene similar to a car’s bumper so that the wheel protectors can’t be dented, scratched, or forcibly removed. Reflectors on the fender can’t be popped off, either.
Boston-based bike-share company Zagster runs its Pace bike program throughout the U.S. So the bikes need to be able to take on a range of weather conditions along with a range of riders.
“Every time you have a vandalism, someone has a positive experience,” Zagster VP of Product Bob Mallon said, meaning that it balances out. But the company still has to prep for the toughest conditions. Its bikes adhere to mountain bike standards even though they are used in mostly urban areas. Zagster’s bikes have rust-proof hardware for snowy and wet climates.
Over the years, the Pace bike has moved inward, meaning everything that can be inside is stowed away: brakes, chains, gears, wires. Little things add security: “You can’t use a standard set of wrenches to get things off our bike,” Mallon said.
After testing “every single airless tire on the market,” Mallon said the best option appeared to be a pneumatic tire, more resistant to flats because of its strong rubber lining covering a tube of compressed air. But the company is keeping an eye on airless tire tech.
At Uber headquarters in San Francisco, Jump product head Nick Foley broke down the design of the red e-bikes available to rent in San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and Washington, D.C. Uber acquired Jump earlier this year.
Foley called the bikes “unorthodox” due to their frame shape and unique design. “Every nut and bolt is custom designed,” he said, adding that doing so makes it less of a target for thieves because the pieces can’t be used on other products and need a special tool to be removed.
Like other bike-shares, Jump hides its cables on the inside. The design focuses on keeping everything covered. Foley prefers a pneumatic tire since he is waiting for a solid tire to keep up with the demands of an e-bike. Even the kickstand is extra robust to make sure it’s “durable for years of public use,” along with the rest of the bike, Foley said.
The bell is so well integrated into the handle bar (again, so it can’t be pulled off) some people report that they can’t find it or figure out how to use it.
Jump users said their favorite non-electric battery feature was the basket in a recent company survey. With a crushable cupholder inside, it has a backpack-sized space for putting your things. Even if it’s sometimes used as a trash receptacle while parked, it’s hard to break off or damage.
Graffiti and tagging is the main type of vandalism in San Francisco, Foley said. He’s noticed that when the bikes first appear out in public, vandalism is rampant and then eventually tapers off. Then it’s just a matter of making sure the bikes can withstand heavy use and city streets.
Lime has both an e-bike and a traditional bicycle — both noticeable in the company’s lime green and yellow colors. Lime spokesperson Mary Caroline Pruitt said barely 1 percent of bikes in the fleet have been vandalized or stolen, but the product team still has to build sturdy bikes.
Like other bikes, Lime has as much equipment as possible tucked away internally: bike chains, gears, wires. A cable protector attempts to keep things safely out of harm’s way. Anti-theft nuts and bolts make it hard to take apart and the proprietary design make any stolen parts pretty much useless.
No matter the bicycle, if something is exposed it’s going to get messed with on the street. But these companies are one spoke ahead.