Ensuring the Efficient Workings of a Bike-Sharing System

» Washington releases preliminary information about bike-sharing station locations. Are they positioned to succeed?

After the opening earlier this year of major bike-sharing systems in Denver and Minneapolis, Washington expects to relaunch its own program this fall. Working with Arlington County, Virginia, the U.S. capital will replace the only marginally successful 100-bike, 10-station SmartBike DC network installed in 2008 by Clear Channel with a 1,100-bike, 114-station system using Montréal’s Bixi technology, also under development in London, Boston, and Melbourne. Washington’s success, along with that of the several other American cities currently pushing these public cycling systems, will determine whether similar networks will spread to large and medium-sized cities across North America.

This recent focus on bike-sharing is a response to the strong public reception to systems in European cities like Paris and Barcelona, where thousands of people hop on the publicly owned vehicles everyday. In the French capital, where more than 20,000 bikes are available in the city and in the near suburbs, bicycle mode share has doubled since 2007.

Washington’s Capital Bikeshare will initially feature one hundred stations in the District of Columbia and fourteen in Arlington’s Crystal City, but future expansion — potentially funded by the federal government, depending on the outcome of the region’s application to the TIGER program — could result in an eventual quadrupling of the system’s size. Future bike stations could be positioned in Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, in addition to Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor and the City of Alexandria.

This week, though, Washington revealed preliminary station locations for the first stage of the system, a few weeks after Arlington pinpointed its own. Have the cities’ transportation planners thought through how people are likely to use these bikes? Or is the District limiting the chances for the system’s success by not fully considering the needs of potential bike riders?

To consider these questions, it’s worth comparing the proposed system with the existing and well-used systems in Montréal and Paris. One place to start is an evaluation of station densities. In a bike share system, a station is where people pick up and deposit bikes; it typically includes ten to twenty “docks,” each holding one bicycle. The system works by allowing customers to choose a bike at one station and deposit it somewhere else. The density is a reflection of how far a person has to walk to get to or between stations.

In the chart below, I’ve taken one mile-square samples of central city neighborhoods and peripheral neighborhoods and plotted station locations on them; the former are the densest station areas in each respective bike system (downtown D.C., downtown Montréal, central Paris) and the latter are those that are least well served by stations (Anacostia in D.C., southeast of Parc Maisonneuve in Montréal, and Montreuil east of Paris). I obviously haven’t included areas outside the reach of the bike share networks.

The charts demonstrate the fundamental difference between Washington’s proposed system and those in Montréal and Paris. In the center-cities, the French-speaking cities have roughly three times the densities of bike stations as the District proposes; in areas far from downtown, the difference is even more pronounced. Indeed, the minimum density of stations anywhere in the Paris or Montréal bike-sharing zones is higher than the maximum density promoted for Washington.

This could potentially cause significant problems for the users of the new U.S. capital system.

There are two main reasons for this: One, light station density makes short neighborhood commutes via public bicycle more difficult, reducing the chance to attract occasional riders; Two, insufficient density can cause logistical problems in situations where stations either run out of bicycles or, inversely, run out of dock spaces — not infrequent issues, at least considering my own experience using the Parisian system extensively.

Washington has clearly attempted to spread out its initial investment, giving at least a few stations to every part of the city. This, however, would result in a limited concentration of bikes in the relatively large areas east of the Anacostia River (just 11 stations) and west of Rock Creek Park (9 stations). Each of these sections has a lower population density than the rest of the city.

This contrasts significantly with the approach in Paris and Montréal, where the bike-sharing zone ends abruptly; there isn’t much of a station density fall-off below the 15 stations per square mile mark. Even in areas with low densities, such as in the examples shown on the chart above, stations are clustered along corridors, ensuring that virtually every station is within 200 meters (656 feet) of the next. This allows people to walk easily between stations if they encounter some problem.

Closeness of stations is essential to making bike-sharing work. Washington has designed its system as if people can pre-plan specific commutes from one station to another, but that’s not always a realistic option. For one, unless stations are very well marked from the surrounding streets, it is not always easy for bike riders to find even a predetermined destination station unless they’re very familiar with the neighborhood. This could complicate matters, since in modern bike-sharing, customers face increasing financial penalties the longer they delay returning their vehicles. The more stations, the easier it is to find one; it’s okay to end up parking somewhere different than originally planned as long as the station is relatively close to where you want to go.

Meanwhile, the lack of adjacency between stations could become extremely difficult when stations are either empty or full. For commuters hoping to ride a bike in a neighborhood with few stations, an empty station means they must either choose a different way of getting around or walk a long distance to the next station. On the other hand, a full station at the end of a trip could mean having to park at an area that is completely out of the way.

Though there are municipal employees using trucks to move bikes from full stations to empty ones, they frequently cannot keep up with the movement of traffic during the day, leaving people in the lurch when there aren’t nearby stations to choose from. These are technical problems that will limit the appeal of using bike share for a large percentage of people in the under-served areas — which is specifically why Montréal and Paris have chosen not to have any neighborhoods with just a few stations.

The foreign example suggests that you either have to put a lot of stations in a community, or not serve it at all. It’s the low station density middle ground that causes problems.

All that said, there are several reasons to remain optimistic about the implementation of bike-sharing in Washington. For one, even if station density isn’t as high as it ought to be, people are still likely to use the bikes at a rate that expands their overall mode share in the city. Second, there is a significant chance that the municipality will be able to find sufficient funds to expand the project to increase station density in areas that are initially under-served; in terms of transportation capital investments, bike share is pretty much as cheap as you can get. But there’s always the problematic possibility that expansion could mean only extending the system further out with low station densities, not increasing densities within the already served areas.

Yet Washington will have an example of what denser station areas look like right on its home turf. Arlington County’s fourteen stations are all within the tight confines of the adjacent Crystal City and Pentagon City districts; each station is within just two or three blocks of the next. This will provide a working example for how the bikes can serve as efficient neighborhood transportation devices, getting people between relatively close destinations more quickly than is possible with walking.

Related: If you understand French, here’s a funny satire video that proposes a new way of thinking about bike share as a political tool in the Paris mayoral race. Image at top: Montréal Bixi bike share stands, from Flickr user newton64 (cc)

23 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • You’re right, but the comparison is not exactly fair. Both Paris and Montreal started with about half the number of bikes they currently have. You’re comparing a starter system to mature ones.

    No doubt DC will still be somewhat less dense even in a true apples-to-apples comparison, and that’s a good point, but let’s be honest with ourselves.

  • The DC system is of course also starting off at 1/5 the size of the Montreal system and 1/20th of the Paris system.

    There are trade-offs between station density and geographic coverage, but I think DC’s approach for the initial system balances those two interests well.

    Also, not serving a neighborhood is simply a political impossibility. That’s something that can be rectified with more bikes and more stations (which DC wants to do, regardless of the success of the TIGER grant)

  • Chris K

    The Bixi system is also being implemented in Toronto next year.

  • Gabriel Ratener

    Determining success is challenging in the field of public infrastructure ,however if any city is serious about increasing bike ridership and commuting, it must first and foremost work on establishing a decent road/lane network for bikes, not a strip of paint by the curb (or what is known as a bike lane in the US), but a network of paved trails and lanes that are physically separated from car traffic. Without decent bike infrastructure such as that found in only a hand full of cities in Northern Europe and China, any bikeshare system will reach a ceiling and only extend to the bravest of riders, not your average man or woman. Why then are no bikeshare programs in the US open to those under 18 years of age?

  • Matt

    Gabriel… you mean like this bike infrastructure I use to commute to work during the summer? I guess I shouldn’t take for granted what some other cities do not have.

    Also, I can walk to the end of my building and look down at one of the new Nice Ride kiosks here in Minneapolis. Looks like all but three bikes are checked out right now.

    • G Ratener

      Indeed the minneapolis St Paul metro area has an extensive network of bike trails as does Denver when compared to most other cities worldwide, yet this is still not enough as it currently stands to encourage more than around 10 % to commute by bike all the way from home to work and back making bikes a fringe mode of transport, because there remains too many gaps in the bike network. These gaps can be bridged by building true bike lanes that separate car and bike traffic physically. A trail might be less than a mile away yet there may lie a big boulevard or freeway in the way; even the trails themselves have gaps in paving that create a hostile environment for a complete road bike ridder’s commute.

  • Melbourne’s scheme commenced operation a couple of months ago. It hasn’t got a full complement of bikes rolled out yet (100 so far, more coming), but it’s at a disadvantage due to local laws which make bike helmets compulsory.

    http://www.danielbowen.com/2010/07/16/bike-share-working/

    http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/helmet-law-makes-nonsense-of-bike-hire-scheme-20100722-10my2.html

  • Oops, my mistake: Melbourne has 600 bikes so far.

  • poncho

    There’s the whole chicken and the egg argument… get the riders first then the infrastructure comes, or the infrastructure first then the riders come. DC is going for the first one.

    • G Ratener

      The first option can’t work alone; you can’t just make bikers appear magically, there must be a logical reason to bike in place for biking to increase in popularity, that’s the problem in DC. Although it’s true, there is a catch 22 that makes it appear unwise to invest appropriately in bike networks without an abundance of bikers even though there must be a good bike network already in place to have more diverse ridership (not just the bravest, most committed bikers).

      • poncho

        ‘get the riders first’ as in put in a bike share system before building an extensive network of bike lanes/blvds/tracks/paths. this is based on getting more riders on the road to politically support the building of an extensive bike infrastructure (and reallocating existing road space).

  • DC is doing it concurrently. We are adding a lot of very significant cycling infrastructure under the current mayor, including a series of cycle tracks.

  • Jim

    I was in Montreal recently and used Bixi for 3 of my 5 days there. For a tourist it was extremely user friendly. After the first day on Bixi I met up with my friends for drinks after they got out of work and was raving about how great the bikes were. My hosts, in turn, agreed that it was a fabulous concept but complained about the unreliability. They explained that if you don’t leave the house early enough you don’t get a bike and that people love to ride to work in the morning (downhill) but take the bus or metro to get home to avoid the uphill ride . . . which makes the system more expensive to operate because of all the shuttling that is required.

    Montreal is no more dense than DC is and DC has much larger tourist base with a much longer tourist season while being in a much larger metro. Knowing both cities as I do I would guess that DC is going to need at least 50% more bikes than Montreal just to stay in step with the shortcoming of the Montreal system.

    I’m sure the people working on this in DC are already aware of these and other issues but just thought that i’d point out that commuters demand a certain level of reliability and in a place like DC, popularity with tourists could really a throw a wrench into that.

    • Anon256

      In Paris, there is a rebate/bonus (in the form of free cycling time to be used later) for taking a cycle from a low-elevation station and returning it to a high-elevation one. Depending on conditions, cities could offer bonuses/discounts with more granularity, and also shape demand by offering bonuses/discounts for taking a cycle in the opposite direction of peak commuter traffic, just as transit agencies offer discounts to off-peak riders. In extreme cases, the system could even pay a small amount of cash for a counter-peak ride, with an effect similar to the recycling deposit on bottles and cans; this would probably be cheaper than moving bikes around by truck.

      Why do you think tourists would create more problems for the system? Unlike residents, tourists are about equally likely to travel at all times of day, and don’t travel in a particular peak direction; I would expect the presence of tourists to smooth out demand somewhat.

  • John W

    How does this compare with London’s scheme? As near as I can tell, it’ll fall between the two, but my brain’s in ‘sleep mode’ as it’s the weekend.

    According to the Guardian, The scheme … will eventually see 6,000 bikes parked at 400 “docking stations” spread every 300 metres or so across central London, making it the largest scheme after Paris. Another site seemed to suggest that 6,000 was the initial number of stations.

    I came across one reference that it was 44 sq km, so 17 sq miles. With 400 stations and even density that comes to 23.5, or, factoring out the river, roughly 24 stations per square mile. It may well be that the density is fairly consistent throughout, as the scheme area is more or less equivalent to zone 1 of the tube system – so not very much in the way of residential areas (and those that are residential are quite dense).

    Ahhh – someone’s ahead of the game on this one: http://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/cycling-london/where-is-your-nearest-london-cycle-hire-stand/

    • Frank

      Thanks for posting the London link! It appears that TFL are targeting an even distribution rather than anticipating areas of high demand.

      The city (near Bank) appears to be one of the sparsest areas, despite having the highest concentration of jobs. There also appears to be little or no added density around train stations.

      Are they assuming this will be solely for casual users and tourists rather than commuters?

      • John W

        Not sure what the official word (if any) is on this, but one of the comments below the Guardian article notes (and which I’ve read elsewhere): The mayor has even kept the docking stations away from the main railway stations in order to avoid over-use and over demand.

        They seem to be taking advantage of other systems’ growing pains and (arrgh) ‘allowing it to bed in’ before having the fully fledged system going. For the first month, only subscribers (rather than casual users) will be able to use the service.

        As for the City, presumably they are expecting less use throughout the day. In London, at least, the emphasis seems to be to replace cab journeys and short tube and bus journeys for getting around the centre, not to facilitate commuting. Elsewhere in central London will have more of this type of traffic than the office-oriented City.

  • Adrian

    For the initial implementation it would make sense to have a dense concentration of stations, but with a very limited number of bikes at each one. As the system gets underway and demand rises you’d be able to see which stations have the most usage, and expand the number of bikes at those stations.

    The idea of discounts (or even payments) for going from low-elevation to high-elevation is interesting, and it wouldn’t be hard to measure the effect of those discounts/payments and adjust them to an optimal level. The pricing differentials would have to be very transparent to users for it to have the desired effect, and also for it gain acceptance.

  • John W

    There’s a handy comparison chart of all the bike-share schemes mentioned above (except Washington’s!) in this article in the Montreal Gazette (click on the image to get a readable size).

  • As you mention, London has just launched its own Cycle sharing scheme. It will be important to evaluate these schemes as a whole rather than just within the host City as lessons need to be learnt across many factors, including cultural acceptance of the initiative.

    There is one thing that is bothering me though. What does success look like?

    Is it the volume of poeple using the scheme, the financial metrics or the publicity? Or should the scheme be judged on the increased awareness of drivers’ understanding of Cyclists?

    I write for the British Bike Association on a wide range of Cycling topics.

  • […] Freemark has also discussed, there are certain prerequisites for a bike sharing system to be highly successful.  This is […]

  • The London scheme has been a success but it’s still early days. One thing that frustrates me is poor distribution of the bikes. As more popular stations lose their bikes, the support crew do not always replenish them in time.

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