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The secret data collected by dockless bikes is helping cities map your movement

Lime and other companies are gathering masses of location-based information that some cities are leveraging to improve their streets.
September 28, 2018

Ask Tim Corcoran about the most popular destinations for bike-share trips in South Bend, Indiana, and he can give you a list, or even GPS latitude and longitude coordinates. As the city’s planning director, Corcoran is responsible for overseeing a program that enables residents to rent bicycles via a mobile app and then pick them up and drop them off pretty much wherever and whenever they want. He doesn’t actually run the rental service, though. Lime, a Silicon Valley startup, manages the program and keeps Corcoran in the loop via a steady stream of data about bike activity in South Bend.

Lime is able to collect this information because its bikes, like all those in dockless bike-share programs, are built to operate without fixed stations or corrals. Instead, they transmit their location every few seconds using built-in GPS chips, 3G wireless connections, and solar power. When combined with the Lime app, the setup lets customers locate available bikes and rent them at $1 for 30 minutes. Once done with their trip, riders can park the bikes practically anywhere and electronically lock them with a few taps on their phone. This enables Lime to see where a ride starts and ends, and where the bike travels in between those two points.

In the 18 months or so since dockless bike-share arrived in the US, the service has spread to at least 88 American cities. (On the provider side, at least 10 companies have jumped into the business; Lime is one of the largest.) Some of those cities now have more than a year of data related to the programs, and they’ve started gleaning insights and catering to the increased number of cyclists on their streets.

South Bend is one of those leaders. It asked Lime to share data when operations kicked off in June 2017. At first, Lime provided the information in spreadsheets, but in early 2018 the startup launched a browser-based dashboard where cities could see aggregate statistics for their residents, such as how many of them rented bikes, how many trips they took, and how far and long they rode. Lime also added heat maps that reveal where most rides occur within a city and a tool for downloading data that shows individual trips without identifying the riders. Corcoran can glance at his dashboard and see, for example, that people in South Bend have taken 340,000 rides, traveled 158,000 miles, and spent more than 7 million minutes on Lime bikes since the company started service. He can also see there are 700 Lime bikes active in the city, down from an all-time high of 1,200 during the University of Notre Dame’s 2017 football season. 

It’s the trip-level data that’s the most intriguing, though. Corcoran says South Bend is considering using that information to decide where to place new bike paths and protected bike lanes. Earlier this year, the city used the data to determine the most popular bike drop-off areas on its sidewalks. It then marked them with paint and began encouraging people to leave their bikes there. Eventually, hundreds of these “preferred parking locations” could dot the city, according to Corcoran. (The idea might seem to conflict with the free-spirited vibe of dockless bike-share, but experts say residents and operators generally like the reliability of designated pick-up and drop-off zones as long as there are a number of them and people don’t have to walk more than a few minutes to reach one.)

Seattle, which has had Lime bikes since July 2017 and is now home to 5,000 of them, has similar plans. In March, the city created five parking areas for the bikes on its sidewalks after analyzing the company’s usage data. Seattle aims to roll out more of these zones and carve out space for new bike corrals and bike lanes on streets, according to Joel Miller, who heads the city’s bike-share program. “We’re really excited to continue to gather this data and figure out where people choose to ride and where bikes are congregating,” says Miller. “It will help us designate [bike] parking and where it might make sense for the city to invest in more general [bike] infrastructure.”

Some experts think the GPS-based information is useful for cities, but needs independently-verified safeguards. “With dockless bikes, you suddenly have the ability to ride directly to your house and leave the bike there,” says Kate Fillin-Yeh, the strategy director for the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). “That opens up a host of new concerns when paired with location services.”

In theory, the fact that people can park dockless bikes outside their exact destinations could make it easier for someone who hacked into the data to decode the anonymous identities that companies assign their users. That hacker then might be able to figure out the biking trips that specific people took. Fillin-Yeh thinks cities should hire auditors to make sure bike-share companies are safeguarding riders’ data privacy. 

Lime says it’s just trying to be a “good partner” to cities. “We believe [this information exchange] is necessary for us to build a strong basis of trust with cities [that want to see] these fundamental metrics of our operations,” says Emily Warren, Lime’s director of policy and public affairs.

Mollie Pelon McArdle, who works on technology policy for NACTO, says a number of cities are still figuring out how to manage and interpret the data they receive from dockless bike-share operators, especially if multiple companies are active on their streets. Lime’s operations across dozens of US cities generate tens of millions of data points a day, according to Snowflake, a startup that runs the cloud data warehouse where Lime stores its information. 

Lime says it’s working with cities to identify a standard format that will make it easier for them to pull usage information from multiple operators into their own databases and analyze it with third-party software or tools they build themselves. “If we can come together as an industry [and decide on a standard], that will allow cities to take the next step in making use of all this valuable data,” says Warren.

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