Once you start spotting LimeBikes around town, with their bright green frames and yellow bumpers, it becomes a bit like the game of slugbug. You can’t quit seeing them.
There’s one, there’s another. And another — in the rack in front of Legends of Notre Dame, being ridden down Eddy Street, leaning up against a tree in a nearby neighborhood, and a few way down by the St. Joseph River.
LimeBike, unlike most other bike-share systems, is dockless, which means that they can be picked up and left anywhere. A user locates, unlocks and pays for using a bike — rates are usually $1 per half hour with discounts available for Notre Dame users — through a smartphone app.
Mitchell Olsen can’t help pointing them out, either. He has good reason to. He played a part in bringing the bike-share program to the community.
Olsen is an assistant marketing professor who came on board at Mendoza in fall 2016. It was during new faculty orientation, in fact, that two fortuitous events occurred: Just as Olsen was pondering an assignment he was designing for his Strategic Marketing course, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who had been invited to speak to the new hires, mentioned he was thinking about introducing a bike-share program.
“I was sitting at a table with some city representatives, so I brought it up as, hey, maybe this is something we can partner on as a capstone project,” said Olsen. “I wanted the project to be a big, worthwhile challenge that gave students an opportunity to make a lasting, tangible impact before they graduate — something they later could point to as alums and say, ‘I had a role in this coming to South Bend and Notre Dame.’”
Olsen began meeting with various local community and government groups, as well as South Bend’s city planners, to hash out the details of the project so that it would be meaningful for the students and useful to the community.
Bike-share programs have become popular in many major cities, such as New York and Washington D.C., said Olsen. They provide a handy, low-cost way to see the sights, or just to get from point A to point B. But the programs also typically operate at a 40 percent loss, primarily because the more prevalent docked systems cost a lot to install and maintain, and are less customer-centric because the rider has to go to a specific location to get and leave a bike, which may not be convenient.
When the spring semester rolled around and Olsen introduced the capstone project to his three classes of marketing seniors, the first major task was clear: Figure out how to make a system economically sustainable.
South Bend officials had continued their feasibility study of bringing in a bike-share system in the meantime, and ran up against many of the obstacles that had caused systems to fail in other cities. So with nothing decided — vendor, type of system or type of bike — Olsen’s class was unleashed on the project, said Chris Dressel, the City of South Bend planner who coordinates bike-related projects.
Working in teams, the students created detailed, in-depth market analyses of which customer segments would be most interested in a bike-share program, how they would use it, what existing programs would best fit the local community’s needs and so on. This made for a terrific capstone project, because they had to bring to bear all of their marketing knowledge, such as the “four P’s” (product, price, promotion and place), on a real-life project that connected the students to the local community.
In May, the 21 teams presented their findings to a group of city officials and University administrators. While none of the teams specifically suggested the newly founded LimeBike as a solution, they did provide valuable information from their detailed analysis of user surveys and demographics that helped the city get a handle on interest and potential use, said Dressel. For example, while recreation seemed the most obvious use, some teams considered how bikes might be used as part of a work commute.
In early July, LimeBike distributed 210 bright green, step-through, cruiser bikes around South Bend — just the third U.S. city to offer them — well ahead of the mayor’s initial timeline of 2018. LimeBike quickly increased the number of bikes deployed in South Bend to more than 800, with the tally expected to exceed 2,000 by the end of this year.
In August, 175 of the bikes were rolled out on campus, thanks to a collaborative effort on the part of Notre Dame’s Office of Public Affairs, Office of Sustainability and Notre Dame Security Police, as well as the City of South Bend and Michiana Area Council of Governments (MACOG).
The bikes have been a hit. South Bend logged more than 135,000 rides during the first three months of the program. “They are going everywhere,” said Tim Corcoran, the director of planning for South Bend. “We don’t have to guess where people want to access the bikes; they simply put them where they want them.”
This has, in a few unfortunate cases, meant bikes ending up in the St. Joseph River. So, yes, there is a learning curve for the program’s administrators. Bikes occasionally are “hoarded” in someone’s garage or backyard, or left in odd places. (LimeBike employees regularly round up bikes that haven’t moved for a while and “rebalance” them into the system.) But there is also learning to be gained about the community by analyzing user patterns, which is perhaps an unexpected advantage of the dockless system.
It’s becoming clear, said Corcoran, that the bikes are filling a more vital need for residents than a simple recreational spin by the river. While some hardy souls have ridden as far as nearby cities Elkhart and Niles, more user data from prolonged use is needed to form a clearer picture of overall riding habits.
For his part, Olsen still enjoys spotting the bikes around town, even though he likens it more to “Where’s Waldo,” where “Waldo” happens to be a neon green bike.
“Although my wife is surely tired of hearing me point out each LimeBike, I still get excited whenever I come across one — especially when it’s being put to use,” said Olsen.