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Student Systems and Services

University of California, Irvine

A home-grown bike-sharing program is made possible by a sophisticated technological back end, helping the southern California campus reduce the number of abandoned bikes and cars on the road.

With five LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold awards, the University of California, Irvine has a reputation as an environmental leader. So perhaps it’s not surprising that it has launched one of the nation’s first automated on-campus bike-sharing systems.

A system that is easy for members to use depends on a considerable amount of behind-the-scenes technology development. ZotWheels, as the program is called, employs radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to track and validate the bicycle check-in and checkout processes. (“Zot” is the sound made by the school’s mascot, an anteater, in the comic strip B.C.)

A student can rent a bike from any station by swiping his membership card in a card reader (the rental covers a three-hour period). After his ride, he drops off the bike at any station with an available slot. The RFID tracking equipment marries the user’s card to a specific bike and tracks its use until the bike is returned. Notifications are sent to the user via text message or e-mail when the bike is removed and returned.

Vendor & Product Details
Central Specialties:
Miles Data Technologies:

The ZotWheels system records the status of open slots and available bicycles. UCI’s Parking and Transportation Services department created an interactive map using Google’s API to show real-time bicycle availability at each station, which members can access from the web or a smartphone.

Other than some bike maintenance, the system largely runs itself. “I don’t want to build systems I have to manage,” says Ronald Fleming, director of Parking and Transportation Services at UCI. “But creating an automated system like this takes a lot of planning up front.”

Inspired by municipal bike-sharing systems in Europe, Fleming hoped the new system would address a couple of issues on campus. One problem is the high number of abandoned bikes left around campus at the end of each school year. Another is the number of cars on campus roads: Because the 1,500-acre campus has abundant parking, people often choose to drive. “But we don’t have the roadway capacity for that,” Fleming says, “and we are trying to cut down on traffic and emissions.” UCI officials have estimated ZotWheels could save from 20 to 40 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in its first year.

Unable to find a vendor with a turnkey system, Fleming spent a year cobbling together a partnership that included Central Specialties (CSL), a company that manufactures self-service stroller machines; bike maker Collegiate Bicycle; and electronic barcode vendor Miles Data Technologies.

CSL translated its stroller vending technology to bicycles. An IDEC PLC (programmable logic controller) and proprietary software manages the vending system’s functions, including counting rentals, signaling the ports to eject a bike, and recognizing a bike has been returned and is ready for its next rental. A specially designed solid-state circuit board processes information from the IDEC PLC and sends it to the bike ports.

Miles Data created a bike-tracking system that links real-time data to the main ZotWheels database via a wireless network. The system’s Microsoft Windows server updates continuously, transmitting activity logs and member information between the stations’ networks. The ZotWheels software also interfaces with Parking and Transportation Services’ other point-of-sale systems, Antpark and myCommute, which students use to manage their ZotWheels accounts.

Members currently pay $40 per year to share 30 bikes from four stations. “Our target is 250 users, and we are about halfway there,” Fleming says. Plans call for 10 more stations on campus, and Fleming is talking to local regional transit authority officials about extending the system into the community.

Meanwhile, the ZotWheels team will continue to improve the technology. “We would like to add a visual dashboard so users could see their own usage patterns,” Fleming says, “and so that transit officials can track patterns for planning purposes.”

About the Authors

Meg Lloyd is a Northern California-based freelance writer.

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.

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