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Can bike-sharing services take cars off the road?

LimeBike President Brad Bao talks about what has to happen first on Too Embarrassed to Ask.

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LimeBike users ride bicycles in Seattle Courtesy LimeBike

If you have to travel a short distance in a city — to run an errand or meet a friend for a drink — how do you get there? In America, at least, your answer is probably not “ride a bike.”

“I think our biggest competitor is the culture of biking that is nonexistent right now,” LimeBike Co-founder Brad Bao said on the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. “If we’re looking at Amsterdam, 40 percent of the traffic is on bikes, and the Danish people ride over 25 percent. In the U.S., it’s less than a percent.”

Bao’s company is trying to get that number up with a fleet of GPS-tracked lime-green bikes. Unlike other city bike programs, which charge $10 or more per ride and keep all the bikes in a special dock, LimeBike charges only $1 per half-hour rental and lets its customers park their bikes anywhere when they’re done, ready to be picked up by someone else.

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Currently, LimeBike operates in seven cities and five college campuses. Bao acknowledged that not every town is right for bike-sharing.

“The bike is perfect for solving the last mile of transportation, so it has to be dense enough,” he said. “If you’re looking at some of the cities that, no matter where you go, it’s five to 10 miles, the bike really doesn’t work. We’re looking at density of about 2,000 [people] per square mile, and also a minimum city size, roughly 200,000 and above. With some other cities, with schools in play, that number can be dropped a little because the school has much higher frequency of bike use.”

Currently, the Silicon Valley company wants to operate in San Francisco, but has been blocked due to the city’s deal with a competitor, Ford GoBike. Bao noted that part of LimeBike’s pitch to new cities and towns is that its GPS data can help cities figure out how to better integrate bicycle traffic.

“One of the key things for urban planning today is everyone is pretty much guessing because there’s no data,” he said. “Where should I put the bike lanes? How wide should they be? How do I change the infrastructure? There will always be debates about things like that, and nobody has data. We will give them the data: Where people are biking, where they start, when they start, where they finish and when they finish.”

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