Hey Product Manager, Can I Ride Your Bike?

There is a lot of promise to new bike sharing services along with a lot of risk
There is a lot of promise to new bike sharing services along with a lot of risk
Image Credit: Jussi-Pekka Erkkola

If you lived in a modern city, how would you chose to get around town? Yes, you could always walk – however, that’s going to take a lot of time and you are going to be tired when you get where you are going. There are cabs / Uber / Lyft and these all work, but they can quickly become quite expensive. Most cities have buses and subways, but how far away from you is the closest stop and how close is it going to get you to where you want to go? In these modern times in which we are living, it turns out that you may have another option – ride a bike.

How Bike Sharing Services Work

This of course brings up the question, how would an urban bike sharing service work? First off, you need to understand that the bikes are not all stored in a single location. Instead, they are spread out individually all over the city. The bikes can be chained to a bike rack just about anywhere. Somebody who has a need for a bike simply opens up the Uber application on their smartphone and then reserves one of the available bikes. The bikes are GPS enabled so you can always find the available bike that is closest to you. When you are done using the bike you simply lock it and leave it. If product managers can make this service a success, then they will have something to add to their product manager resume.

In their product development definition, who is the product manager’s target market for this bike service? City dwellers who live at least a mile from the closest train station (too far to walk, too close to drive). Commuters who get off the train at least a mile from where they work are great potential customers. The cost for the bike service is US$2 per hour and then seven cents for each minute after that. These bikes are electric bikes and so the rider doesn’t even have to pedal. When the rider is done with the bike, the bike can be dropped off anywhere within the service’s sharing boundaries which generally cover about half of a city. The benefits of a bike program like this is that it could go a long way in eliminating traffic jams, make travel cheaper for all of us, and could even potentially have a big impact on our environment.

As great as this service may seem, in some cities where such a service has been started (Paris, Zurich, and in China) they have run into problems. The market for bikes that you can use at any time is an unregulated market. In these cities, abandoned bikes have started to be found on every street. The bikes get vandalized, they get driven into lakes, they also get stolen and then stripped for parts. The market for bike services is very competitive and this means that a number of start up firms have both come and gone already. In the U.S., the product managers who are thinking about launching a bike service have seen what has happened to similar services in China and are now working to find ways to make sure that the same things don’t happen to them.

Whats The Future Look Like For Bike Sharing Services?

In general, cities view bike services in a positive light. The cities are slowly starting to welcome the new services. They are in the process of developing new regulations to limit the number of competitors will be permitted and what types of bikes the city will allow to be driven on their streets. Users can run into problems when trying to use bikes. Sometimes bikes will have broken seats and their electric batteries may be dying. Some bikes may have had their motor and / or battery removed. When a customer wants to purchase a ride, they may be beaten to a bike by another rider.

The firms that offer these bikes are trying to come up with solutions to the problems that their customers are running into. One firm allows riders to reserve a bike ahead of time – and start paying for it when the reservation is made. Some services require you to use their provided locks to secure a bike to a pole or a rack in order to stop charging you for using the bike. This makes the bikes harder to steal and ensures that riders won’t just leave them behind. One of the biggest problems that bike customers run into is that they simply can’t find the bike that they are looking for. There can be a number of reasons for this. GPS does not work very well when there are tall buildings around. Additionally, sometimes people end up leaving bikes indoors.

The new bike services do come with their share of critics. One of the biggest issues that critics have with the bike sharing systems is that they come with very little accountability. When someone parks a bike, all of sudden it is no longer their responsibility. When a bike gets stolen, thrown into a river, or stripped for parts the bike company can’t tell if it was the rider’s fault or someone else’s. What the product managers at the bike companies are starting to discover is that when the service first rolls out in a new city, there will be some destruction of their property. However, after a few months the bikes become part of the background of the city and the destruction drops off.

What All Of This Means For You

Transportation in big cities has always been a major challenge. All too often people find themselves living and working too far away from city transportation solutions such as subways and buses. The alternative, walking or driving, often are not good substitutes. Product managers have identified this problem and taken a look at their product manager job description in order to find a solution. The arrival of bike sharing services appears to provide a low-cost solution to the challenge of being able to quickly cover a great deal of distance in an urban environment.

The new bike services make it easy to get and use a bike. You use your Uber application to reserve a bike, you unlock and ride the bike, and then upon reaching your destination you simply lock it up again. Product managers are targeting customers who live over a mile away from a subway stop or who have to walk more then a mile upon arriving at work. Bike services have run into problems. In some cities, bikes have been stolen and abandoned, thrown into rivers, and stripped for parts. Cities are only now starting to work out the rules that that want to use to govern how bike sharing services operate. Bike sharing product managers are working to solve the problems that their customers are running into such as allowing riders to reserve a bike ahead of time. One of the biggest problems with bike sharing services is that once a bike is dropped off, the rider no longer feels any responsibility towards it.

For the longest time, urban environments have had a transportation challenge that they have not been able to solve. Some distances that have to be traveled in a city are just too long to be walked and city transportation routes don’t cover it well. Cabs do a good job of allowing people to travel from point-to-point, but they are very expensive. The new bike sharing services might be just what people need. There are some challenges with these new services that still need to be worked out. However, if the product manager can solve these problems, then perhaps we’ll all be riding bikes more in our future!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: How could bike sharing services make riders feel more responsible for the bike that they just finished riding?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Let’s face it: Amazon is a very big company and they have done a lot of different things very well. However, it turns out that they may not yet be able to do everything perfectly. One area where the Amazon product managers are still struggling is in Europe. Specifically, when it comes to selling both apparel and footwear they have not yet quite figured out what Europeans really want. What can the Amazon product managers do to fix this problem?