City’s First Bike Sharing Program Shows Success, Promise

Though a lack of funding recently prevented our city from riding on a local bike sharing program, there is a good news to celebrate elsewhere.

Last month, a team of recent UMD graduates presented their class project in a manner that would likely earn them an A: they launched their first revenue-generating service of weBike, a community bike program that operates the country’s first station-less model of bike sharing.

weBike was created three years ago while teammates Allie Armitage, Brad Eisenberg, Yasha Portnoy and Vlad Tchompalov were taking a course at the University of Maryland with Professor of the Practice Dr. Gerald Suarez. The class, “Systems Thinking for Managerial Decision Making,” became a platform for the team to craft their class project into an ideal version of bike transportation in a college community. When class was over, the students felt their idea had enough value to pursue weBike’s implementation on campus. Upon receiving encouragement from Dr. Suarez, they launched a prototype in College Park and now operate weBike as an incorporated company.

weBike’s model of bike sharing is based on an SMS text message platform, which enables riders to rent and return bikes through their cell phones. Riders can check out a bike out by sending weBike a text to receive a code to unlock it; the weBike fleet is uniform and easy-to-recognize. They can then ride wherever they need to go within a given period, and when they’re finished, return the bike and text weBike to complete the transaction. Through this simple platform, users have access to a bike to get from A to B without the worry of theft, maintenance or the hassle of where to store a bike in a small apartment. Users also save time waiting for public transportation and avoid the hefty fees to park a car on campus.

The first official system of weBike is currently being operated at the Mazza GrandMarc Apartments, a complex located on Route 1 just 1.5 miles north of the UMD campus. Residents at the building have quickly picked up on the value of this flexible form of transportation. “Usually I use weBike three or four times a week,” says MGM resident Nicolas Patrick. “It feels so rewarding cycling to get a couple groceries or to pick up a take-out.” Riders also use the bikes to travel on Paint Branch Trail directly to the University of Maryland campus. “I use bikes almost every day of the week,” comments international student Francesco Scorcelletti. “weBikes have been my only vehicle for [my stay in] the US. I prefer by far to ride around the trail whenever I need rather than wait for the bus.”

Because the cost to offer the system is paid for by the Mazza GrandMarc management, usage of weBike is free for all residents. The system launched in early September, and since then around 85 users have registered for the program, over 300 rides have been logged, and the system has sent and received over 2,500 text messages. “The feedback we get from people using the system is very positive,” says co-founder and marketing director Allie Armitage. “It’s exciting to see how quickly weBike being adopted. Knowing that something we created is valuable to others is incredibly rewarding.”

weBike’s business model is “less expensive” compared to other public bike sharing programs, claims Armitage. weBike systems are composed of equipment (bikes, locks, accessories), technology (text message server, online applications, back-end database management system) and a maintenance platform (monitoring bikes and keeping the fleet in shape). “Because there are no stations in our system, the total cost to operate weBike is significantly less than many others that currently exist, like Captial Bike Share, where each station runs ~$35k. Our systems are usually paid for by the municipality, and they can choose how to fund the system. Ideally, funding is completely covered so it’s offered for free to users (as it is at Mazza). However it depends on the financial status and vision of the municipality.”

The team is excited to grow to new locations in the future and is actively pursuing opportunities to expand. Armitage said the team would love to expand the system in College Park–particularly to the metro station. “There are so many residents who would benefit from bike sharing, and it would be a huge step towards sustainability for the community. Last year we met with the City Council in College Park and received some positive feedback on weBike, but found no real leads towards implementing a service,” she said.

They’ve come a long way from the classroom, weBike’s founders still have high goals to reach in making bike transportation as reliable and convenient as, say, the metro. Most importantly, they believe in what they’re doing; as their slogan says, they’re out to “make shift happen.” It just goes to show that when passion is the driver behind the wheel(s), the results will be powerful.