Ted Ullrich, the co-founder and partner of product design and development firm Tomorrow Lab, likes to tear things apart and find out how they work. So it was only natural that he deconstructed his membership fob for New York’s Citi Bike system, of which he and his colleagues are big fans (they’ve also designed a cupholder specially fitted for Citi Bike).
“I’m a founding member of Citi Bike,” says Ullrich. “And we use our personal interests to do skill-building.” Ullrich is also interested in how Citi Bike works because he was involved in the early stages of creation for a different type of bike-sharing system, SoBi.
Once Ullrich had opened up the fob and uncovered the RFID tag that is the key to the Citi Bike technology, he got another idea: What about putting the tag back into a fob that people would actually want to wear? “A lot of people who ride Citi Bike are people who are concerned about looking good,” says Ullrich. He wanted to give those folks an alternative to “pulling out this ugly gym-membership-type card.”
Ullrich got a friend, Laura Raskin, to sketch out an idea for a shape that would work as a piece of jewelry but also would meet the very specific design parameters necessary to retain functionality (for those who want the gory technical details, check Tomorrow Lab’s site). Using the on-demand 3D-printing service Shapeways, Ullrich soon had a stylish pendant made of gold-plated stainless steel (with a tiny invisible plastic plug where the tag is, to allow the signal through). He's calling it 24 Share-it Gold.
So far, the piece is just a prototype. Ullrich says that a consumer version would be made of gold-plated brass and would look smoother and more polished than this iteration. He estimates it would cost about $80 to produce (chain not included), but is not sure what a retail price tag would be. He isn’t aware of any similar creations in other bike-share cities, although he's curious to know if they exist.
As for reaction from the people who run Citi Bike, Ullrich says so far there hasn’t been any. “They may not like the idea,” he admits. But he adds that there’s no loss to the system financially, as the new fob uses a person’s existing valid membership. In that way, the Citi Bike pendant differs from old-school hacks like the slugs, or counterfeit tokens, once widely used to cheat the New York subway system in pre-Metrocard days. And there’s a potential upside: “As far as any security system goes, they do become more robust as people hack them,” says Ullrich.
At any rate, the Citi Bike folks shouldn’t be too surprised at this development. In a city full of fashion-conscious, design-hacking bike riders, it was probably inevitable.