clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

A bike-sharing war is coming to the U.S. as investors pour money into new entrants

The U.S. is beginning to see movement in the bike-sharing space that grew to be so popular in places like China and Europe.

Photo of a man riding a ride share bike through Dumbo Spencer Platt / Getty

Forget the ride-sharing wars. Transportation has a new battleground: Bike-sharing.

After seeing great success in places like China and Europe, dockless or free-floating bike-sharing has started to expand aggressively into the U.S. — but with that comes staunch opposition from incumbent players and, in some cases, the very cities they’re trying to court.

For the uninitiated, dockless bike-sharing works a lot like today’s bike-sharing systems, except you can, in theory, park the bikes anywhere, locking and unlocking them by scanning a QR code with an app. That differs from current bike-sharing programs in places like New York and San Francisco, where bikes are docked to fixed locations.

Dockless bikes are also GPS enabled, allowing companies to easily track and move them around to places of high demand.

Select bike-sharing services on the map below to see their market share in different cities:

But as these few companies, just months old, attempt to scale across the U.S. and enter new cities, they are facing off against established players that have secured exclusive, long-term contracts. Bike-sharing systems already in place in cities like New York and Boston, for example, have sometimes more than decade-long deals in place.

It’s a moment akin to when Uber and Lyft were trying to enter markets like New York City and faced opposition from yellow cab and black car companies.

A turf war has already broken out in San Francisco between Motivate, the company that owns and operates the city’s current bike-share system (known as Ford GoBike), and the electric bike-sharing startup Jump, a new player that recently applied for a permit for 1,000 bikes.

Motivate has an exclusive contract with the city until 2025, and the company has argued that granting permits to Jump (or anyone else) would violate that agreement.

Stationless bike-sharing has had more luck in Seattle, where city regulators decided to do away with the city’s existing bike-share system to create a permit program for these kiosk-free bikes. Seattle felt its existing system was aging and unsustainable, giving dockless systems from companies like LimeBike and Spin the opportunity to swoop in.

Some of the new players hail from China, which can complicate some of the municipal negotiations, but even the homegrown companies are contending with city agencies. And everyone’s fighting against each other for what has become a highly competitive new market.

Chinese players like Ofo and Mobike have seen incredible success in establishing and building out a bike-sharing system in China and now they’re muscling their way into the U.S. There were more bike-sharing rides in China in the first quarter of 2017 than there were ride-sharing and bike-sharing rides combined in all of North America.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s happening now.

The incumbent

Citi Bike bikes parked in their docking station Spencer Platt / Getty


U.S. Markets: New York City; Bay Area; Boston; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Chattanooga, TN; Columbus, OH; Jersey City, NJ; Portland, OR

Advantages: A more than three-year head start in many of these markets; exclusive contracts with some of the cities that don’t end until as early as 2025 and as late as 2029; bikes are only parked in specific areas chosen by the city, reducing risk of bikes stacking up.

Disadvantages: The company sometimes pays rental fees to the cities; added cost of docking infrastructure; availability is limited to locations where there is a dock.

Price: Varies by city. Citi Bike in NY: $12 for a day pass for 30-min rides plus $4 for every additional 15 minutes; $24 for three days; $163 annual membership.

Motivate is the company behind bike-sharing systems like Citi Bike in New York, Ford GoBike in San Francisco and Hubway in Boston. Currently led by New York’s former Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief Jay Walder, the three-year-old company recently hit 50 million rides in New York City and close to 18 million in total ridership across the country.

The company has secured exclusive rights in cities like New York, where its contract doesn’t end until 2029. The model varies city by city, but typically Motivate secures some version of a public-private partnership with the regulating body in that market. In some cities, like Washington, D.C., the docks and other operating costs are publicly funded.

In New York City and San Francisco, Motivate is solely responsible for the costs of the infrastructure and operations. The company was said to be paying New York City $5 million annually to cover the costs of lost parking revenue. The company also has a revenue-share agreement with some of these cities and makes a payment for the public space it uses to dock the bikes.

The company is currently looking into dockless bike technology, Walder told Recode, but wants to ensure that it’s delivering the same quality of experience.

The new players

All the new players are dockless, which means they save money by not having to set up expensive stations or pay rental fees to the local government.

What the companies save on infrastructure they can spend on the costs of managing the bikes. Since the bikes are GPS-tracked, companies can more quickly meet demand by moving bikes to various locations, a process called rebalancing. Bikes are picked up and dropped off in sprinter vans driven by a mix of contractors and employees.

The primary pitch for these new systems is that they will help democratize bike-sharing because of their low cost. They can also more quickly expand to neighborhoods that are under-served by the current bike-sharing companies, what some critics have charged as red-lining. In deep Brooklyn, for example, Motivate hasn’t installed any stations, leaving area residents without any place to pick up or dock a bike.

The dockless technology also enables companies to share an unforeseen level of trip and route data with the cities. That anonymized data will then help cities plan for things like where to put the newest bike lanes.

The biggest concern cities have, so far, is about where the bikes will be parked and the risk of the bikes collecting in specific parts of the city. (These companies argue that’s where rebalancing comes in.)

Here are some of the major players:

A woman on a green LimeBike bike in front of a blue polkadot wall. LimeBike


U.S. Markets: Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Dallas; Aurora, Colo.; Alameda, CA; South Lake Tahoe, CA; South San Francisco, CA; Imperial Beach, CA; North Bay Village, FL; Key Biscayne, FL; North Carolina State University; Greensboro NC; Arkansas State University; Holy Cross College; University of Notre Dame; South Bend, IN

Advantages: Raised a total of $62 million from major backers like Coatue Management, GGV Capital, Yuri Milner and A16z; has a strategic partnership with bike manufacturer FSD; also has exclusive contracts with a number of cities and college campuses.

Disadvantages: Competing against exclusive contracts in major cities; added costs of rebalancing bikes.

Price: $1 per every 30 minutes; $29.95 per month for 100 rides

LimeBike, which was founded earlier this year, has expanded quickly. The San Mateo-based company is now in 16 markets including a few college campuses and has struck exclusive pilot agreements or contracts in some of the cities where it operates.

Fresh off a new round of funding, LimeBike said it expects to be in more than 30 cities and campuses by the end of the year.

The company, like its dockless competitors, is working vigorously to launch in major markets like New York where Motivate has exclusive contracts. However, there are some potential loopholes. For instance, companies like LimeBike can try to secure a pilot agreement to test their service for a limited time.

Alternatively, the company is also trying to help cities set up a separate permit for dockless bikes, which means it could potentially not run afoul of exclusive contracts like the ones granted to Motivate, since those would pertain to a different kind of permits.

This was the case in Washington, D.C., which has a publicly funded, docked bike-sharing system managed by Motivate called Capital Bikeshare. But the city has allowed dockless companies like LimeBike to operate under a separate permit. However, the permit caps at 400 the number of bikes each company can launch in the city.

Additionally, LimeBike has taken the strategy of launching in smaller municipalities, cities or college campuses in the vicinity of these larger markets where bike-sharing has seen some success and demand.

The young company also has the advantage of being fairly vertically integrated with major bike manufacturer FSD. This way, as the technology in bikes advances, LimeBike can quickly get hold of the newest bikes and introduce them into their markets.

Spin bikes


U.S. Markets: Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Dallas; South San Francisco, CA

Advantages: Exclusive partnerships with some college campuses, WeWork and the WorldBank; raised $8 million from Grishin Robotics and others.

Disadvantages: Has raised less money than its dockless competitors, competing against exclusive contracts of incumbent players, cost of labor and time spent rebalancing.

Price: $1 per every 30 minutes; $29 monthly membership; $99 annual membership.

The San Francisco-based company was founded in November 2016 and operates fairly similarly to LimeBike and its other competitors. In fact, there are a lot of overlaps in the cities where they operate.

Spin is on track to launch in a new city or a market for each week in the fourth quarter, according to its co-founder Euwyn Poon.

Like LimeBike, Spin is launching in many cities around major markets like San Francisco and New York in order to create a model for those regulating bodies and create demand. (It’s a move Uber pulled around cities in which it was not legally allowed to operate.)

Spin also has exclusive relationships with some college campuses as well as businesses like WeWork, for which the company is the exclusive bike-sharing provider for all of its locations in San Francisco.

People ride bright yellow Ofo bikes in Washington D.C.
Ofo bikes


U.S. Markets: Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Worcester, MA; Revere, MA, Chelsea, MA; Malden, MA; Aurora, CO

Advantages: Raised more than $1.2 billion from major strategic backers like Ali Baba and Coatue; backed by strong Chinese ride-hail player Didi Chuxing; has had success scaling its business across China; experience scaling the system globally.

Disadvantages: Foreign-based company competing in a space where data-sharing and relationships with local regulators are key; competing in space where local market nuances are important; competing against exclusive contracts of incumbent; cost of labor and time spent rebalancing.

Price: $1 per hour

Ofo, having seen great success in its base country China, has begun to expand globally. The company has expanded to parts of the U.K., Singapore, Kazakhstan and now four markets in the U.S.

While homegrown U.S. players are in their infancy, Ofo is already operating in 180 cities since its founding in 2014.

Ofo comes the closest to being the Uber for bike-sharing. For good reason: Ofo is backed by Uber rival Didi Chuxing, which has strategically grown its business outside of China without ever physically launching an international market.

In the same vein, Didi and its Southeast and South Asian allies Grab and Ola have seen great success in focusing on hyperlocal businesses that cater to regional nuances. That will be a strategy Ofo will have to employ as it attempts to build out its U.S. operations.

A big selling point by these new players is the anonymized data they can provide cities, which can help immensely with infrastructure planning. It will be difficult to enter most cities without a true partnership between regulators and the companies, but VP of U.S. Operations Grace Lin said Ofo is more than willing to be a partner.

The company only just began its U.S. expansion but is already in four cities, where it’s competing head to head with many of the homegrown players.

From left to right Dr. Chongrak Wachrin, Suvit Arayavilaipong (SVP-Product Management, AIS), Joe Xia (Co­Founder and CTO of Mobike), Nattakit Tangpoonsinthana (Executive Vice President of Marketing
From left to right Dr. Chongrak Wachrin, Suvit Arayavilaipong (SVP-Product Management, AIS), Joe Xia (Co­Founder and CTO of Mobike), Nattakit Tangpoonsinthana (Executive Vice President of Marketing


U.S. Markets: Washington, D.C.

Advantages: Global bike-sharing company that has seen great success in China; knows how to compete against Ofo in a very difficult market; raised more than $900 million from backers like Foxconn and Tencent.

Disadvantages: Foreign-based company competing in a space where data-sharing and relationships with local regulators are key; competing in space where local market nuances are important; competing against exclusive contracts of incumbent; cost of labor and time spent rebalancing.

Price: $1 per 30-minute ride

Chinese player Mobike is only in Washington, D.C., but it has raised more than $900 million and expanded to parts of Southeast Asia and Europe.

As of the summer of 2017, the company was seeing 20 million rides a day globally. Today, Mobike is in active talks with cities to expand across the U.S.

This article originally appeared on