Portland Oregon

The technology behind bike sharing systems

May 17, 2011: 11:41 AM ET

Sharing a bike with a friend requires trust and a U-lock. Sharing 600 bicycles with the city of Boston requires technology and a big investment. Alison Cohen's Alta Bicycle Share is up for the task.

Alison Cohen with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino

Alison Cohen with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino

Alison Cohen used to ride her bike 17 miles to work every day, a "ridiculous commute," she now admits, but one which gives her solid cred in her current job: president of Alta Bicycle Share, a fast-growing operator of urban bike-share programs, based in Portland, Oregon.

Bike sharing, in which members pay a modest annual fee for rental access to carbon-free rides parked all over town, began in Copenhagen, made its way to Paris in 2005, and is about to achieve critical mass in the U.S. Denver, Minneapolis and DC all launched big new programs in 2010; Boston -- like D.C., an Alta project -- will roll out Hubway this summer, starting with 600 bicycles and 61 stations.

Fortune: I love this idea. But haven't they had a lot of problems with bike sharing in Paris?

Cohen: Basically, someone figured out how to force the bikes out of the docks. Paris's theft and vandalism issues were a huge obstacle in getting bike sharing to the US. But I would posit that the problems they've had there are specific to the technology.

How is your technology different?

We understand that the highest priority has to be a physically secure system.  And anytime there's even the scent of a breach, you have to take on an almost military response to secure it.  Because once it goes on YouTube, then -- [Laughter]

Our bikes and stations are built by Public Bike System of Montreal. We know the moment that we put these stations down anywhere the first thing people do -- mostly it's teenagers -- is try to steal the bikes. They'll jerk them up and down and side to side. In Montreal they have a picture of a Ford F-150 with a rope connected to a bike, but the truck couldn't get the bike out of the dock. With a system that's secure like that, theft and vandalism are very minimal. The only real theft we've seen in the U.S. has been people using a stolen credit card to take a bike and not return it.

Interesting.  I mean, kind of depressing, but interesting.  The other thing that's noteworthy about the Paris system is the way it was paid for, right? More

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