Dockless, shareable bikes – some of them bright green – arrive in the East Bay

A LimeBike on a Berkeley street this month. Photo: Tracey Taylor

On Valentine’s Day Albany was the latest city to welcome a fleet of green and yellow bikes onto its streets. The citrus-hued bicycles have been spotted in Berkeley too, although the company behind them is not officially operating in the city.

The shareable LimeBikes tend to eschew city borders as, unlike, say, GoBike which launched in Berkeley last summer, they have no docking stations. Using an app, customers identify and unlock a LimeBike bicycle near to them, take a ride then drop them off and lock them up pretty much wherever they like.

One 30-minute LimeBike ride costs one dollar (the first ride is free and there are student discounts). A single 30-minute trip on GoBike, by comparison, costs $3 with $9.95 daily passes and annual $149 memberships available.

LimeBike got its start in Berkeley. It was conceived at UC Berkeley’s Skydeck startup accelerator by Cal grads Toby Sun and Brad Bao, and launched in June 2017 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. A rapid expansion has put its bikes in more than 46 markets at latest count, including several outside the U.S. In the Bay Area, LimeBike operates in El Cerrito, Alameda, Burlingame, South San Francisco and Walnut Creek, as well as Albany, and is eyeing other local cities, including Berkeley.

“We’re in conversation with officials and key stakeholders in Berkeley and are gathering input from the community,” said company spokesman Jack Song. He stressed that LimeBike never deploys bikes where there is no formal agreement — it’s their number one rule, he said.

Ginger Jui, communications director at Bike East Bay, described bike sharing options as a good complement to all kinds of transit.

“With GoBike and LimeBike, people are able to use a bike for a one-way trip to get to BART,” she said. “It’s convenient not to have to put your bike on the train.”

Jui said the LimeBike pilot program in Alameda has proved particularly popular with high school students.

“There are lots of kids running around town on the LimeBikes showing the next generation of bike riders that it’s a cool way to get around, using a smart phone,” she said.

She noted that GoBike requires users to be 18 or older.

LimeBike is now headquartered in San Mateo, close to the Silicon Valley financiers that have helped propel it to an estimated $225 million valuation, according to Wired, which reports that LimeBike has raised a total of $132 million, including from venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz and Coatue Management.

The challenge the company set out to resolve was “the first and last mile of transportation,” explained Song. And it would appear the freewheeling bikes are meeting that demand.

“What’s beneficial about a dock-free system is we get data in real time so we can create a heat map to see how our bikes are used. Forty percent of all trips are taken either at the start or end of a transit stop,” he said. The average ride is 0.9 miles, or about a 15-minute ride. Another 25% of rides are often taken to local entertainment venues or restaurants, according to LimeBike’s data.

The agreements LimeBike hashes out with partner cities often start with a pilot program, “so we can both tweak the program as we go along,” said Song.

One advantage for cities that the startup has over bike-sharing companies based on docking stations is cost, as it requires funding to build the infrastructure. It’s why you often see sponsors, such as Ford’s underwriting of GoBike, bearing some of the financial outlay.

“We represent zero cost to city and we take on the liability,” said Song, who added that LimeBike’s proposition to cities is that “instead of taking away parking spaces let’s save that money and improve infrastructure,” such as creating bike racks.

Customers can park their bikes anywhere, in theory, but the company has recommendations for them to use designated spots — on curbsides away from pedestrians or bike racks, for example. There’s a clear need to avoid the bikes becoming a nuisance to residents, local businesses, pedestrians, and those using wheelchairs.

Bike East Bay is working on best practices around bike sharing locally so that there are “strong protections in place to make sure our sidewalks are open and easy,” Jui said.

In a September 2017 letter to Alameda’s city manager, Bike East Bay Executive Director René Rivera welcomed the city’s openness to trying out the dockless bikes — it is in the middle of a six-month LimeBike pilot — but highlighted four areas that the advocacy group felt needed to be addressed in order to ensure a successful roll-out: specifically, relocating bikes left on streets, outreach to local businesses, ensuring affordability and making local hires.

Alameda is currently taking feedback on the pilot from the community through a survey that closes on March 5.

Dockless bike sharing is a big and growing business. China fields the world’s two biggest players: Ofo and Mobike, both of which have launched in multiple U.S. cities and are each valued in the billions. Other dockless companies include Motivate and Spin.

And the next iteration is already upon us. Uber recently announced a pedal-assist electric bike service called Uber Bike in partnership with New York startup Jump Bikes. The new bikes are available through an app in San Francisco. Jump is also piloting electric-assist bikes at UC Berkeley, offering red bikes in particular for those who commute between the Cal campus and University Village in Albany. LimeBike has deployed electric-assist bikes, called Lime-E, in several cities, including Seattle and San Diego, and electric-assist bikes are also coming soon from GoBike.