The application of information technology was the tipping point in the evolution of PBS that made it a cost-effective transportation solution on a grand scale. Before the introduction of IT systems, a typical PBS would rely heavily on human resources. With IT, not only was the transfer of information more accurate, but its speed could also be measured in seconds rather than hours or days.
An IT system stores, retrieves and transmits information, and connects the actual hardware of the bicycles, docks, terminals and control center. It is, in essence, the link between the various communication portals — one with ever-increasing forms and functions. Be it the user-to-terminal, the station-to-control center, the control center-to-website or any other communication link that the IT system supports, it is a web of real-time information transfer that provides the PBS and — importantly — the users with the most up-to-date and accurate information.
In early-generation bicycle sharing schemes, before IT systems were incorporated, the details about a user checking out a bicycle would be recorded manually. That information could not be transferred to a central control immediately, so there was no way of balancing the overall PBS — knowing how many bicycles were where at any given moment was but a dream. Payment for bicycle usage could not be tracked and/or handled in real time, and data was cumbersome to analyze, or was dated, providing no real value to the user. The inefficiencies of this bricks-and-mortar means of operations facilitated abuse and inhibited customer service.
IT systems now enable live monitoring of the entire bike share scheme through real-time transfer and application of information such as user identification, bicycle location, station occupancy and payment processing.
The photographs and figures below illustrate some of the aspects of the ‘IT Systems’ chapter in the book Bicycle Sharing 101: Getting the Wheels Turning. They are meant to be viewed in the context of reading that chapter.
CONTRIBUTE YOUR PEER REVIEW of this chapter. If you are an industry expert who has read the book, we would value your feedback.
As shown in the diagram above, information flow is instantaneous, allowing the identity of users to be immediately linked with that of the bicycle when they check it out and return it. In turn, this allows stations to be automated, with no need for an attendant. This is the revolution that made large-scale PBS systems what they are today.
ABOVE: Control center in Hangzhou, China, with real-time data matched by live-view webcams
ABOVE: A bicycle-finding smartphone app in use in China. Spotcycle delivers similar functionality for smartphone-bearing PBS users in Europe and the U.S.A.
ABOVE: Citi Bike’s online station map shows the real-time availability of bikes and docks by clicking on any station icon.
ABOVE: A print-out card for a temporary membership, paid for by credit card at the terminal, provides an access code to release the bicycle in Montreal’s Bixi system.