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New bike-sharing systems are leaving the clutter of racks behind

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New bike-sharing systems are leaving the clutter of racks behind

Services such as U-Bicycle and Dropbike use new technologies built right into the bikes that operate like car-share systems

Carly Eldstrom rides along Victoria’s Douglas Street on a U-Bicycle on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018. U-Bicycle is a bike-share service that allows riders to pick up bikes that have been left at public racks, and drop those bikes off wherever is convenient for them.

Carly Eldstrom spent last Saturday running errands on a bike-share bicycle around Victoria, making four trips in all.

But, unlike hundreds of thousands of people in other bike-share cities, Ms. Eldstrom didn't have to access her bike by finding a particular dock at a particular intersection. Nor did she have to worry about locating a dock where she could drop it off. Instead, she picked up bikes that had been left at public racks near her stops and dropped them off where she felt like it.

It's a system she appreciates.

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"It's probably the biggest feature for me. You don't have to find a dock," said Ms. Eldstrom, who works for a social-services non-profit in British Columbia's capital.

That's because she was using a new kind of dockless bike-share system that has become hugely popular in China but is only just beginning to percolate into Canadian cities, largely through the efforts of two fledgling but ambitious companies: Dropbike in Toronto and U-Bicycle, based in Vancouver.

The dockless systems, using new technologies built right into the bikes, operate like car-share systems. Riders find the nearest bike by using a map on an app. They unlock it with their phones.

Carly Eldstrom uses the U-Bicycle app on her phone to scan a barcode to unlock a bicycle.

They can then drop the bike wherever is convenient for them.

The company can track where every bike is through a GPS-like device. Riders typically pay $1 a half-hour or a ride.

The dockless systems are being tried out in Kingston and Victoria, as pilots. Several university campuses across the country have also moved to dockless bike-share systems.

And last week, the interior city of Kelowna committed to a 1,200-bike dockless operation with Dropbike, the biggest system in the country so far.

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For this smaller city, a dockless system provides a cheap and easy way to provide bike-sharing, compared with the millions that cities have sometimes had to spend to subsidize expensive docking systems – not to mention the headaches for city engineers in allocating public spaces for the docks.

"The challenge has always been how to deal with the up-front capital costs," said Matt Worona, the city's active transportation co-ordinator.

Riders typically pay $1 a half-hour or a ride.

With dockless systems, companies, which have found a way to provide bikes at the low cost of about $400 apiece or less, can actually make money just from the ride fees charged without getting help from sponsors or cities.

Kelowna has had to commit very little for the Dropbike system arriving in April.

The city is designating "havens" where riders can drop bikes, with the company encouraging them to do that by charging an extra fee for bikes dropped outside of them. But there aren't any giant metal racks taking up parking spaces or sidewalk areas.

This latest phase of the popular bike-share phenomenon has many other cities contemplating whether to allow it and how to regulate it.

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Vancouver, which has provided a $5-million subsidy to its Shaw-sponsored Mobi system that started in July, 2016, is getting lots of calls from dockless-bike companies wanting to move in.

"Bike-share is going through a lot of growing pains. The question [with the dockless systems] is how to manage the public realm," said Scott Edwards, who oversees the city's co-ordination with Mobi.

U-Bicycle can track where every bike is through a GPS-like device.

"The new companies haven't been able to express that they can manage that well."

Mr. Worona admits that dockless bikes are currently suffering from a negative image, because those systems became so prolific and unregulated in China that it has led to too many bikes – and images that have gone around the world of share bikes being dumped in huge piles.

But he said more research showed that dockless systems can work well and that they are more accessible for low-income neighbourhoods.

In Victoria, people say the company, which brought in 150 bikes when it launched last fall, has proved to be a good corporate citizen.

"It makes so much more sense," said Mayor Lisa Helps, who encouraged the Vancouver-based company to start out in Victoria after meeting the bike manufacturers in China last year.

"It doesn't clutter up the public realm. And it's a smart company. They know where the rides are. And it has boosted the local economy."

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