Entrepreneur To Roll Out Floating Bikes On The Bay

By Matthew Pera The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Jessica Schiller is set to roll out a bike-share program in the East Bay this year that will allow users to rent her aquatic vehicles by the minute. 

The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

Why sit in a car, stuck in gridlock traffic, to cross the San Francisco Bay over a bridge, Jessica Schiller says, when you could glide elegantly over the water on a floating bike in less than half the time?

The Tiburon Peninsula resident who works in Mill Valley models the commute alternative most days. She hops on one of her bobbing bikes and zooms across Richardson Bay, joining the likes of swimming seals and diving cormorants before she glides her way into the dock outside her waterfront business headquarters.

When she arrives at her office, she says, she feels at ease. Her rides over the water are fun. She wants to share the feeling. "Not only are we providing a really innovative and rapid form of mobility, it's also joyful," she said. "There's no stress on the water."

The Mill Valley owner of Schiller Bikes, which she invented in 2013, is set to roll out a bike-share program in the East Bay this year that will allow users to rent her aquatic vehicles by the minute. She hopes to soon expand rentals to other parts of the Bay Area and, eventually, to cities around the globe.

A pilot program is set to kick off this year. Riders will be able to hop on floating bikes at one end of the Oakland Estuary, ride them across the narrow waterway that separates Oakland and Alameda, and leave them on the other side.

Because she'll use private docking facilities for her bikes, Schiller doesn't need approval from city officials, according to Rochelle Wheeler, an Alameda senior transportation coordinator.

Schiller gave city officials a demonstration of the bikes last month, and sparked excitement. The bridges and underground tubes that cross the Oakland Estuary are often clogged with congestion, and some aren't friendly for cyclists and pedestrians, Wheeler said. Officials have been searching for solutions.

"We're excited about this option," Wheeler said. "It's easy to implement, it's at no cost to the city and it should improve the ability for people to get across the estuary."

The bikes are assisted by electric propellers and can glide across water at top speeds around 12 mph, making the crossing faster than circumnavigating the estuary on land, Schiller said. No helmets are required, but riders must wear personal flotation devices.

Similar to scooter and bike-sharing enterprises that have become popular on land in several major cities, the Schiller Bikes will be available to rent for short stints through a mobile app. It takes about 90 seconds to cross the Oakland Estuary on one, according to Schiller. She hopes to have the experience ready for users by July.

And she's not stopping there. She plans to meet with transportation officials far and wide in hopes that her idea will catch on. She hopes to create a program in Marin that allows users to cross Richardson Bay, or ride between the county and San Francisco. She also envisions rentals between different locations in San Francisco, including between Aquatic Park and the Embarcadero.

"Waterways are these empty, serene avenues that can be leveraged to create a new frontier in urban mobility," she said.

Her design team has spent years modifying the hardware to create the smoothest, safest ride. A standard bike frame is attached to inflatable pontoons. A rudder is controlled by the handlebars and a propeller is controlled by the pedals. Electric assist can be adjusted for various speeds, or turned off for maximum exercise.

"Anyone who drives in Marin knows that the challenge ahead is about moving people rather than simply moving vehicles," said Jim Elias, executive director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, which advocates for safe cycling.

"Transportation occurs in a limited space," he said, "so to the extent that we can provide easy, convenient and economical ways for people to get from place to place through means other than getting in a car, lives are made better."

Schiller's invention may be innovative, but could it work logistically for Bay Area travelers? She says yes.

The inflatable pontoons keep the bikes from tipping, and Schiller says they are sturdy enough that riders shouldn't worry about falling into the water.

"You can bring your laptop and wear your loafers," she said. "It's a dry ride."

They're also large enough that riders can strap aboard scooters or regular bicycles, giving them another transportation option once on land.

But there are logistics to figure out.

In wet weather and rough seas, the bikes won't cut it on the bay, according to Schiller. Even in calm conditions, she plans to have supervisors stationed at either end of the Oakland Estuary helping riders get on and off the boats and ensuring safety. But if the program is expanded, she's not sure how that might work.

Wheeler, the Alameda transportation official, said her concerns about the safety of Schiller Bikes were diminished when she rode one during a trial.

"They're super fun to ride and they're very intuitive to use," she said. "Having tested it out, my reservations went way down about it."

But she's not sure how the program will work in the Oakland Estuary if it becomes popular.

"I think the docking is challenging. If there was a huge demand for it, finding space for all these bikes might be challenging," she said. "But we're open to seeing how it goes. That's the whole purpose of this: to see how it operates and what the demand is."

Schiller hasn't yet drilled down pricing, but says rides will likely cost about $4 for the first 10 minutes and $1 per minute after that.

Designers are working on installing computer screens on Schiller Bikes, which could give riders directions or even show "virtual bike lanes" on waterways that could guide users on the safest paths.

"This is a great way to make the water something that anybody can enjoy," Schiller said. "Most people can't afford to own or even rent a boat. So we're democratizing access to an amazing experience on the water and making it available to almost anybody."

Schiller Bikes demonstrations are available in Sausalito by appointment at schillerbikes.com. An earlier iteration of the bike, which doesn't have electric-assist technology, is available for purchase for $5,500. The electric models aren't for individual sale.

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