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America's newest bikesharing program lets you drop off bikes basically anywhere

Spin photoSpinA Spin bike.

Earlier this month, Bay-Area-based startup Spin introduced the first large-scale deployment of a stationless bikesharing program in the US.

As of March 11, Austin, Texas now has hundreds of orange Spin bikes randomly scattered around the downtown area, each available for rent whenever and wherever Austinites need them.

Each bike pairs with a mobile app that electronically unlocks the bike for $US1 per 30-minute trip.

Derrick Ko, a Spin co-founder, used to work for the ridesharing company Lyft, where he says he learned just how many people struggle with what’s known as a “last-mile transportation problem.”

Basically, people may find it easy to commute most of the way to work, but get snagged primarily within the last mile. In cities, Ko says, there are typically few options for people to travel that mile, short of walking or waiting in traffic.

If they had bikes right at their fingertips, Spin’s mission suggests, life would be a little easier.

“What we’re seeing is cities are getting extremely congested,” Ko says. “And public transportation infrastructure is very inconsistent around the US, to put it mildly. As a result, people are depending on cars.”

Spin’s solution is to give people the ability to rent a bike where they currently are, not where the bikes live in a designated rack — the way traditional bikeshare programs work. Just like Zipcar does for people who need a car, Spin’s app connects users to nearby bikes to rent them out for as long as they need.

Once they’re finished — say, arriving at a friend’s apartment — they can leave the bike up against a wall or beside a lamp post. There are no guarantees it will be there when they leave, but another will likely be just as close by. (If someone wanted to take the bike outside city limits, technically they have that option, Ko says. But he says that is an outlier case.)

In the short term, the goal is to mobilize people without adding to the congestion that’s already created by cars. In the longer term, Spin wants to transform how the US thinks about commuting — to take people from a car-centric mindset to one that prioritises riding a cleaner and cheaper form of transit.

“It’s really about converting car trips to bike trips,” Ko says. “Every additional bike trip in place of a car trip will improve congestion; it will improve health; and it will improve pollution. And that to us is a great mark of our system working.”

Changing Americans’ preference for cars over bikes is kind of like asking them to prioritise Major League Soccer over the NFL, Ko admits. It’s a real challenge.

“This is a completely new model,” he says.

And launching a new model requires a number of precautions. Spin, for example, will be working with the Austin city government to educate citizens about the program, including telling people not to leave bikes in front of doorways or in places blocking pedestrian walkways.

There also is an on-the-ground task force that Spin has hired to enforce some of the policies. If people steal the bikes or misuse them, Spin will assemble a team that can investigate the problem. Ko says reports about China’s stationless bikesharing program going totally awry are mostly sensational; save for a few bad apples, he doesn’t expect the heaps of discarded bikes China has seen in a few rare cases.

If Austin proves successful, the company will look to expand to the Bay Area and other cities around the US.

“There’s this sentiment that people don’t like to own things, and bikes are definitely one of them,” Ko says. “And thanks to ridesharing, people are very used to their mobile phone as their gateway to transportation.”

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