RFID Journal: Toronto's RFID Bike Sharing Program
RFID Journal: Toronto’s RFID Bike Sharing Program

Jun 07, 2016

In April 2016, the Toronto Parking Authority (TPA) announced that it had selected Montreal-based RFID bike-sharing solutions company PBSC Urban Solutions as the new supplier for its Bike Share Toronto network. This year, the TPA will purchase 1K new RFID-enabled bikes and 120 new stations from PBSC. This acquisition more than doubles the number of bikes in TPA’s bicycle-sharing program. Meanwhile, Chicago’s Divvy program, which has comprised 476 PBSC stations and 4,760 PBSC bikes since 2013, has begun expanding its network by adding 99 stations and 1K bikes. PBSC was launched in 2008 to provide a bike-sharing system to its home city of Montreal. The BIXI-Montreal network now has 5,200 bikes and 460 stations.

To date, PBSC has provided its solution to approximately 20 cities worldwide and several colleges. PBSC provides and operates the bicycle-sharing program for its clients, using passive high-frequency (HF) RFID tags supplied by Syrma and PBSC’s own readers, made by a third-party manufacturer. RFID accomplishes two things; the organization reports: identifying a user to provide them with access to a bike and identifying the bicycle itself once it is docked at a station and locked in place. To identify each PBSC bicycle, a Syrma passive RFID tag is embedded in the triangular lock mount installed on the front of the bike. Since its launching, PBSC has used a half-million 13.56 MHz Syrma RFID tags compliant with the ISO 15693 standard, and 45K of its bicycles are currently in use within about 20 cities.

An RFID tag is embedded in each of PBSC’s bicycles, in the triangle-shaped lock mount attached to the bike’s front, just beneath the handlebars. The cities and colleges that are PBSC’s customers can provide the bikes to riders in two different scenarios, says Jean-Paul Paloux, PBSC’s operations, and R&D director. In the case of tourists or one-time local users, a renter proceeds to a kiosk installed near a bike station or uses PBSC’s mobile app, then inputs credit-card information and retrieves a five-digit code. The individual can use that code to release the locking mechanism at the docking point of a particular bike, which is then associated with that customer. Upon returning the bicycle to that same docking station or another station elsewhere in the city, the user pushes the bike’s front into the docking space.

A Syrma HF reader captures the tag ID on the bike’s triangular lock mount via the reader antenna installed at that docking space and forwards that information to the PBSC software on its own hosted server, indicating that the bike has been returned. This can be accomplished via a cabled or cellular connection. The tag is then linked to that location, where it continues to be read until another individual borrows it. The second scenario is intended for regular commuters. In this case, a rider subscribes by paying for a membership online and receives a reusable key fob with a built-in Syrma RFID tag. The unique ID number encoded to the tag is linked to that rider and their account information. Upon selecting a bicycle from the station, the rider inserts the RFID key fob into an aluminum, vandal-proof cassette surrounding the PBSC reader.

As the key is inserted, it pushes a lever that awakens the reader, capturing the tag’s ID and transmitting that data to the server software. After confirming the account’s validity, the software releases the lock for that bike. The RFID data provides bike-sharing program operators with a means of limiting bicycle access to paid users and collects historic data for maintenance purposes. For instance, Paloux explains, the system knows how many times each bike was used and for how long. The software can determine the distance that each bicycle has likely traveled within a specified span of time, which helps PBSC to schedule the maintenance work it provides to its clients. “We may know that bike 23 has been used 1,500 times,” Paloux says. “Then we would know it needs maintenance of the chain.”

At a Divvy docking station, a user inserts his RFID key fob into a slot to awaken the reader, which then captures the user’s tag ID, prompting the docking station to unlock that bike. Because the bicycles are often returned more frequently to some locations than to others, they periodically need to be moved by trucks to ensure that they are distributed at the proper place and time. Without RFID, this would require PBSC workers to drive around the city visually checking every station. Still, with the technology in place, PBSC can view in the software which bicycles are docked at which locations and then send vehicles to move them as needed. For instance, if one station is nearly full and another is empty. The location data is also available to riders via an iOS- or Android-based CycleFinder app that PBSC offers on the Google Play and iTunes websites.

Users can access the app to view which stations in their area have bicycles available, as well as their locations. RFID provides alerting; for instance, if a specific bike hadn’t been docked for 48 hours, without a station reader interrogating its tag during that time period, an alert can be issued to the appropriate managers at PBSC or the city, indicating that it’s missing. PBSC is now offering electric bicycles known as Boost bikes, which have integrated pedal-assisting electric motors and rechargeable batteries to power them. The batteries can be used to power the bike’s tag, boosting its read range and enabling other functionality. However, the company declines to specify the type of functionality it might add.

Syrma SGS Technology, headquartered in India and with offices in the United States, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Singapore, makes RFID hardware, including readers based on Texas Instruments’ and NXP Semiconductors’ reference designs bike-sharing programs, as well as for a variety of other applications. The company can also provide bicycle-sharing solutions that utilize its own RFID middleware to access the bikes and track their usage. The middleware enables inventory management based on the tagged bikes’ locations, explains Paul Dahl, Syrma’s business development director, as well as a billing system to link each user’s payment information with their account and bike access.

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