Some readers may be familiar with the car2go car-sharing system, which is now in use in several cities around the world. Users locate the closest available car via the internet or a telephone call, go to it, unlock it with a chip card, enter their PIN on its keypad, then drive it wherever they want (within its range). When done, they just leave it at the closest designated car2go parking spot, where the next user will pick it up. It's a pretty neat idea, so if it works for cars, why not bicycles? That's where the fledgling sobi (Social Bicycles) project comes in.

New York City urban planner Ryan Rzepecki founded sobi, inspired by bike sharing programs he saw in other cities. While useful, many of those programs require the bikes to be picked up from and dropped off at a central rack or kiosk. Not only does this limit their practicality, but it also means an investment must be made in real estate and facilities at that location.

The sobi bikes, by contrast, would require no home base. Instead, members would use an app to locate the closest available bike to them ... just like with car2go. After reserving that bike, they would have 15 minutes to walk to its location, where they would find it locked to an ordinary bike rack. On the bike's built-in keypad, they would then enter their PIN, at which point the lock would open.

They could then ride the bike wherever they wanted (again, within a reasonable range) for as long as they wanted, with an onboard GPS keeping track of their location the whole time. If they wanted to stop somewhere quickly, they could lock the bike and place it on hold for 15 minutes. Otherwise, upon reaching their destination, they would simply lock it and make it available for the next rider.

Although there would be no actual home base, the fleets of bikes would have "hub" areas that would be their domain. If a bike were left out of its hub, the rider who left it there would have to pay a fee. If a subsequent rider were to take it back into the hub, however, they would receive a credit. Prices for using the service could vary from city to city, although Rzepecki likes the idea of a membership plus use model - perhaps a US$10 monthly fee including one free hour a day, with $5 for each additional hour after that.

The bikes themselves would be custom-built city cruisers, with integrated lighting powered by an onboard solar panel, which would likewise power the electronics. In order to keep dirty pant cuffs and maintenance to a minimum, they would also use shaft drives instead of chains. An initial fleet of bikes to be used in a New York City pilot project has already been ordered.

People interested in making contributions towards development of the system can visit the sobi website to find out how.

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