» London’s experience may provide a useful example for American cities looking to introduce large bike sharing systems.
Bike sharing is growing rapidly as the transportation mode du jour; not only have the standardized bikes and their docking stations invaded most major cities across Europe, but they’re now headed towards introduction in a number of American cities as well. Before investing full-scale in the purchase of thousands of new bikes and the installation of hundreds of docks, U.S. planners should be looking closely at previous experience to determine best practices in system design.
Last month, I laid out my concerns that Washington, D.C.’s new Capital Bikeshare doesn’t plot its stations close enough together for the system to be effective, at least based on the manner in which Montréal and Paris have implemented their networks. The lack of station density could prevent easy use by day-to-day users because of difficulties related to finding stations in some neighborhoods.
London, which just introduced its Barclays Cycle Hire system using 6,000 Montréal Bixi bikes and 400 docking stations spread out across 17 square miles of the center city, does not have the same problem, since its stations are tightly packed in a circumscribed area. One difficulty it might have, however, could potentially be even more problematic: Because of London’s land use geography, commuting patterns are overwhelmingly unidirectional, towards the center in the mornings and away from it in the afternoons. This may put a strain on bike sharing, since to work, the concept requires a relatively even pattern of bike pick-ups and drop-offs at every station.
American cities, which feature similar concentrations of office jobs in the inner-city core and distributions of residential areas in peripheral zones, must evaluate how London is handling this problem and develop their own coping techniques before moving forward with a major spending program.
Consider the images below of usage distribution of London’s bike share, products of a mapping system developed by Oliver O’Brien. In the mornings, thousands of people bike from the outside of the Cycle Hire zone into its interior; by the afternoon, this produces a situation in which the majority of stations in the center are full (red) and the majority of those along the edge are empty (blue). In the evening, on the other hand, the movement of commuters from the core and into the periphery produces the opposite situation, where the stations in the center are empty and those on the periphery are full.
|Afternoon – 1:35 PM London Time
|Evening – 8:55 PM London Time
|Red dot: full station | Blue dot: empty station
For commuters intending to use the bikes during off-hours, this is extremely problematic. If you want to ride from the London jobs center to the outside of the Cycle Hire zone at 9 PM, for instance, it may be virtually impossible to find a bike; even if you do, you might have a difficult time finding a station at which to dock your bike. The same can be said for a commuter attempting to make the reverse commute at 11 AM.
Perhaps more important, this situation is difficult to handle from an organizational standpoint. Because of the fact that the managers of the system want to alleviate these problems, they have 14 trucks (one of which is pictured at the top) which transfer bikes from full stations to empty ones. Other cities with bike sharing have a similar transportation method, but London’s may be particularly overcharged because of the monofunctionality of many of the city’s neighborhoods.
The worse-case situation seems to be occurring at the bike share docks adjacent to the Kings Cross and Waterloo intercity stations. There, the Cycle Hire management company Serco is simply leaving dozens of non-docked bikes in front of full stations, cluttering up the sidewalks sometimes for hours in anticipation of them being moved elsewhere. There are a few solutions that could be implemented relatively easily, including the hiring of more trucks to move bikes around and the creation of more docking points at places with heavy demand for parking.
But both of these would require a ramp-up in operations costs. One of the great benefits of a well-designed bike sharing system is that the riders can do the moving for you, thereby reducing the onus on the operator to make sure there are an adequate number both of bikes and of empty docks at every station.
Some cities, like Paris and Barcelona, have it a bit more easy, simply because office and residential uses in those cities are not nearly as segregated as they are in London, making the flow of bikes in the sharing system multidirectional. In other words, a mixed-use city is most appropriate for the implementation of a bike share system. It is indicative that the one place in Paris where there is a massive concentration of jobs but few residences — at La Défense, just outside of the city limits– has virtually no access to the Vélib bike sharing network. The city’s planners likely understood that the result of putting docks there would be the same problems as are now experienced by London, and have resisted expanding the system into that business district.
But most American cities have no choice but to include their primary, monofunctional, business districts in their bike sharing plans simply because those business districts are in the center of the city. It will be interesting to watch Washington, D.C. and other cities attempt to cope with the problem of the unidirectional commute as their inhabitants get used to biking to and from work, but London’s experience makes clear what they’re likely to experience.