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Are there random, dockless bikes in your city? They could be the key to an easier commute.

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If you’re in D.C., Seattle, San Francisco or Charlotte you’ve probably seen them around town: colorful, unchained bikes casually parked on sidewalks, available for anyone to unlock and ride.

Even your delivery guy.

"I ordered UberEats from the place I was staying at, and he literally showed up on a Spin bike," said Mitch Robinson, a City Launcher with Spin.

San Francisco-based Spin is among a handful of next generation bike-sharing brands that have opened across U.S. cities in recent months. Companies like LimeBike, Mobike, Ofo and electric bike operator Jump are ones currently available to riders in Washington, D.C. The nation's capital is also participating in a pilot program for the next six- to seven-months designed to find alternative transit options that can improve mobility for everyone.

"People on bikes are the most efficient way, and most environmentally friendly way of moving people around," Derrick Ko, co-founder and CEO of Spin, told Circa. "To me, the main driving reason is making cities better for people."

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Spin is participating in a pilot project in Washington, D.C., to see how dockless bikes could co-exist with the existing CapitalBikeshare program. (Natalia Angulo-Hinkson/Circa)

The pilot program is also a test run for city officials to see how well (or not) privately-operated bike-share programs co-exist with the existing District-operated CapitalBikeshare.

Here's how Spin's dockless bike works

These dockless bike-share brands allow cyclists to park their bikes anywhere along their commute, wherever it’s convenient to them, and not just at the designated docks.

"So, you walk up to the bike, and basically, each bike has a unique identifier and a QR code," Spin City Launcher Mitch Robinson told Circa. "On the map, you'll see a few bikes in the area... We can just go ahead and open up scan, and I'll scan this code here. Start the trip, and it will unlock."

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With Spin, riders use a QR code to unlock the bikes. (Circa)

Looking to ease commutes with public-private partnerships

Public transit is indispensable to cities, but it’s also expensive to keep up.

With urban and suburban areas continuing to see upticks in population, as new mobility services emerge, cities are testing out public-private partnerships to give commuters more convenient, flexible transport options. "Swelling demand," a recent McKinsey report noted, has in the last 15 years led to stronger public transit ridership numbers. "These conditions have not only put considerable stress on them but also created abundant opportunities for entrepreneurs," the report stated.

Spin's Ko echoes that statement, saying it played a part in he and his co-founders' decision to break into the bike-share market.

"As people, again, move into urban areas, and even the surrounding suburban areas, there's only so much that the cities can take in terms of number of cars that either go to these transit hubs, or at least into the city," Ko said. "That's where we're going to play a big role in changing that."

How dockless bikeshare plans could co-exist with existing, city-operated programs. (Circa)

In 2008, Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare became the first official bike-share program in the country. Since then, similar systems have rolled out in dozens of cities, including Nashville, Denver and Omaha. The proof is in the numbers. There are 60 million recreational cyclists in the U.S. who have helped lift the bike industry to an estimated worth of $6.2 billion, according the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA).

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) spends close to $500,000 a month to maintain and operate Capital Bikeshare. That figure includes bike lane and sidewalk maintenance, a spokesperson told Circa. While District officials say they have every intention of keeping CapitalBikeshare around, a public-private partnership with a privately-operated transit company could help bridge expansion gaps, and offset some of the cost burden.

Meanwhile, mobility advocates say these new dockless bike-share programs could help decongest cities if more people opt for bikes, rather than cars, buses, or other forms of transit, and at a lower cost. Spin, for instance, charges users a dollar for a thirty-minute ride.

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"The idea was to provide an alternative transit service, using bikes," Sam Zimbabwe, chief project delivery officer for DDOT, told Circa. "Almost 20 percent of District residents bike or walk to work every day, another 35 percent or so take transit to work. And so we are really trying to fill and meet that demand in a safe and reliable way."

In D.C. for example, DDOT ran a survey and found there’s an equity gap in terms of who is using Capital Bikeshare. Especially in so-called transit deserts, where access is limited, fewer people are riding.

Zimbabwe says exploring smarter transportation solutions is necessary to ensuring more residents have access to transit options.

"East of the river here in D.C. tends to be lower income, those are some of the folks who haven't necessarily been able to access, or chosen to access Capital Bikeshare in the past," he said. "We wanted to see whether they [dockless bike-share companies] could fill some of these gaps where we've had a harder time expanding."

"We wanted to see whether [dockless bike-share companies] could fill some of these gaps where we've had a harder time expanding."
Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT

These companies are trying to bring eco-friendly, affordable transportation solutions to more riders, specifically in areas where transportation is hard to come by. Beyond reduced fares, Spin is already looking for other ways to make using their bikes possible for more people.

"What we’re trialing in Seattle is a program called Spin Access. Anyone can buy a card, much like a Starbucks gift card, with just cash," Ko said. A user with Spin Access texts a special code off their card to Spin's system in order to unlock the card. Ko says this particular option eliminates the need for smartphones or credit cards, and will hopefully allow more people to participate.

Ultimately, if these pilot programs reveal the perfect mix of low-cost, high-quality transportation solutions, it’ll be a win for urban planners, bike-share owners, and most importantly, residents.

See more related Circa stories:
Here's how Detroit Bikes is transforming America’s car capital into a bike town
Ford, a 100-year-old car company, is paving the way for autonomous driving
Here's how grocery startup Farmstead is using AI to rethink farm-to-table

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