Bikes Los Angeles

In L.A., efforts are afoot to make bike share a genuine part of the transit network

L.A. bike share

» Late to the bike-sharing game, Los Angeles nevertheless could offer an important innovation: Transfers to and from transit.

You might say that bike sharing has conquered the world, invading city after city since the first modern systems featuring information technology opened in Europe in the 1990s. Now more than 40 U.S. cities have systems in operation. They’ve been attracted to the relative ease of implementing bike sharing, the low costs of operation, and the popular interest in the programs which indeed do a lot to expand mobility in cities.

Los Angeles is the glaring outlier, the only one of the ten largest American cities with no system. Though the City of Los Angeles planned a system in 2013, that proposal fell apart after difficulties with permitting got in the way. In the meantime, other cities in L.A. County—including Santa Monica and Long Beach—have implemented new dock-less networks.

Metro is evaluating a system that would allow customers to transfer between buses, trains, and bikes using a transit card.

Now L.A. is moving ahead with a countywide system that could eventually include 4,000 bikes distributed across the region, creating a network similar in size to systems in Chicago, New York, or Washington. The initial phase will provide 1,100 B-Cycle bikes at 65 stations downtown beginning early next year. Future phases could extend into other parts of the county and will be partly funded by local governments; communities currently identified include Beverly Hills, Culver City, Huntington Park, Pasadena, East L.A., North Hollywood, West Hollywood, Venice, and areas along the Red and Expo rail lines.

Though late, L.A.’s proposal could be a model for a new type of bike sharing. Not only will the system be operated by the county transit agency Metro (most systems are operated by city departments of transportation or independent groups), but it could also be tightly integrated into the transit system by allowing people to transfer directly from buses and trains to bikes—definitely a first.

According to the L.A. Times‘ Laura Nelson, Metro is considering a membership model similar to that offered in other cities where customers pay an annual fee for an unlimited number of half-hour trips but is also evaluating a system that would charge customers a flat fee for a bike ride equivalent to a transit fare (currently $1.75) and then allow them to transfer freely between buses, trains, and bikes for up to two hours.

In an interview, Metro Communications Manager Dave Sotero emphasized to me that bike share integration with L.A.’s TAP transit fare card is a priority and that Metro is “hoping for a unified fare structure.” But there won’t be a final plan for transfers until the agency’s September board meeting, and a decision would follow that.

Whatever solution Metro eventually identifies should prioritize direct integration with the transit network so as to encourage multimodal trip-taking and further encourage L.A.’s rather dramatic transition away from single-person automobiles that has been been a feature of the region since its residents passed Measure R, a regional transit sales tax, in 2008. This could take a number of forms.

For one, L.A. could provide its customers the option of combining monthly transit passes with bike share. This could mean a small additional cost on top of the $100-a-month price of the unlimited transit card now offered. Rather than requiring customers to sign up for the bike share system separately from the transit system, the two could be integrated into one pass; this could encourage more use of buses and trains. This wouldn’t have to exclude the possibility of allowing people to buy annual bike share passes independently of the transit system.

Unlike other bike sharing systems, L.A.’s could provide cheap rates for single rides rather than requiring people to buy day passes.

Metro could also, as Nelson wrote, allow customers to transfer from the transit system to bikes, or vice verse, at the cost of a single transit ride. This would be a dramatically different model than most bike share systems, which have a minimum one-day subscription that is much more costly and aimed toward occasional tourist use (in Washington, for example, the one-day pass is $8). This lower fare would encourage spur-of-the-moment rides by people who don’t want to commit to a day, month, or annual pass but who would still like the option to occasionally use a shared bike.*

This would allow people to use bike share without having to be signed up as a member, a current condition for other systems. This is hardly a revolutionary concept. Imagine if we only let people onto buses and trains if they had previously bought unlimited passes; why enforce such a restrictive policy on a part of the transit system?

L.A. wouldn’t be the first city to allow riders to use transit fare cards to check out bikes. Paris, for example, allows users to tap their transit fare cards to unlock bikes; so do Chinese systems in Guangzhou and Hangzhou. But the three major U.S. systems in Chicago, New York, and Washington currently require people to use transit-incompatible key fobs to check out bikes.

That’s unfortunate, since many people use bikes for a portion of a more extensive multimodal journey. In Denver, for example, 20 percent of bike share rides in 2010 were combined with the transit network. Why not, then, see bike share as another element of the city’s transit network?

Indeed, giving all bike share members transit fare cards or allowing them to use their existing fare cards on bike share would encourage transit use by building in the option of transit as a default choice—a fare card in everyone’s wallet will encourage people to take the train, bus, or bike for trips that might otherwise be accomplished by driving or taking a cab. (What New Yorker doesn’t have a MetroCard in his or her pocket? Imagine how many more people would use the city’s bike share system if they could use a MetroCard to check out a bike.)

Integrating bike share directly into Metro’s overall transit system and its fare structure could offer dramatic benefits for the riding public, making bikes, buses, and trains all more useful. A successful experiment in L.A. could be a model for cities around the world.

* Bike share passes typically require a link to a credit card, since implementers want to have insurance against stolen bikes. Metro would likely only be able to offer the transfer to bike share to customers with credit cards linked to their TAP accounts.

Image at top: A mock-up of a bike for L.A.’s bike sharing system, from L.A. Metro.

Automobile Bikes Light Rail Urbanism

Transit Mode Share Trends Looking Steady; Rail Appears to Encourage Non-Automobile Commutes

» Results of the 2009 American Community Survey show major declines in carpooling, significant increases in biking.

Just how effective have new investments in transit been in promoting a shift of Americans towards public transportation? Has the recent livable communities movement resulted in increased commuting by bike or by foot?

The Census’ American Community Survey, released at the end of last month with the most recent 2009 data, provides a glimpse of what can change over nine years. These data are approximations in advance of the much bigger (and more accurate) sample set that is Census 2010, whose results will be released next year. The information detailed here applies to commutes only, not all trips.

By looking at America’s 30 largest cities — from New York to Portland — we can get some idea of how people are choosing to get to work, and how patterns are changing based on the availability of alternative transportation modes. I have chosen not to analyze metropolitan regions as a whole because I want to focus on the effects of improvements to transit systems and increasing walkability, two characteristics common to center cities but not necessarily to their suburbs. This biases the information, especially for places like Washington or Boston, where the central city represents a relatively small percentage of the overall regional population.

Nevertheless, the data demonstrate a number of interesting trends. Most notable are the huge declines in carpooling and large increases in biking noted over the largest cities. As the chart below shows, over the past nine years, carpooling’s mode share decreased on average by 25.9% and biking’s share increased by 58.5% (note that these are percent changes, not point changes, which are documented in a chart at the bottom of this article). The declines in carpooling were matched with a slight uptick in single-person driving, a 1.5% increase, and a decrease in transit share of 6.4%. These mode shares are not the same as total modal use; it is possible for transit ridership to increase even as modal share goes down (for instance, if city population increases), and vice-verse.

% Change in Mode Share, 2000-2009, Averaged Across America’s Biggest Cities
 Total AutoTotal Non-AutoDriving AloneCarpoolingTransitBikingWalking
All Cities-3.4-2.01.5-25.9-6.458.51.8
Cities with no rail-1.4-6.32.9-23.9-8.040.3-2.7
Cities with rail, but no major new rail investment-
Cities with major new rail investments-
Non-Texas Cities with major new rail investments-5.95.4-0.1-

Overall, the percentage of people commuting by automobile declined by 3.4%, and the mode share of those using non-automobile modes decreased by 2.0%. It was possible for both to decline because of an increase in people not traveling to work at all but telecommuting.

Though these numbers show little change in use for automobile and transit overall, they do provide some clue as to the effects of rail investments. When comparing cities that have no rail lines with those that have existing lines or have invested in new ones, a correlation between rail and transit use is apparent. Cities with no rail saw far smaller declines in automobile mode shares than their rail counterparts; they also saw declining non-automobile mode shares, compared to increases in the rail cities. These differences were especially considerable when considering rail cities outside of Texas; excluding them, transit saw no mode share change, whereas single-person commuting by car decreased (albeit by a minuscule amount).

This may indicate that rail lines can play an important role in encouraging the population to try modes other than the automobile. The non-automobile mode share, which includes transit, biking, and walking, is particularly interesting from this perspective because it may reflect the number of people choosing to live in areas where it is acceptable to use transportation other than the private car. Is this conclusive evidence that rail works better than bus service to encourage people out of their cars? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly a part of the overall equation.

Looking city-by-city, modal share changes reflect some overall trends. Automobile usage continues to decrease in the nation’s older, densely developed cities: The places recording the largest declines in overall car share were, in order, Washington, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago. Those with the largest declines in non-automobile share were largely sprawling cities, including, in order, Columbus, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Las Vegas, and Nashville.

% Change in Mode Share, 2000-2009 in America’s Biggest Cities
 Total AutoTotal Non-AutoDriving aloneCarpoolingTransitBikingWalking
El Paso-2.414.44.3-35.02.547.826.5
Fort Worth-1.5-16.44.7-29.91.5-18.2-31.5
Las Vegas-0.1-13.75.5-27.5-28.5-10.718.7
Los Angeles-
New York-12.63.3-5.6-
San Antonio-0.6-9.94.2-24.6-12.0-11.7-6.2
San Diego-1.5-13.23.5-31.4-12.414.6-19.6
San Francisco-9.66.2-3.9-
San Jose-2.1-2.10.0-13.3-21.343.132.8

The places recording the largest increases in transit modal share were Nashville, Washington, Austin, Seattle, Los Angeles, Charlotte, and Boston. All but Austin, Boston, and Nashville have spent hundreds of millions of dollars investing in expanded rail transit systems; Boston already has a large one. Portland, unsurprisingly because of its municipal investment decisions, had the largest modal increase in bike usage, but other cities less known for biking like Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago also saw significant increases as well.

How can we explain the significant public transportation mode share declines in Houston and Dallas, two cities that invested considerably in their respective rail transit systems? Both saw increases in ridership of their transit systems between 2000 and 2008: Houston saw a 1.05% increase, Dallas a 11.7% jump. Those increases, however, were entirely lost by 2010, which has been a terrible year for transit in the two cities. At the same time, their city populations increased by 15.7% and 9.3%, respectively; transit improvements couldn’t keep up. This may be because of poor choices in public transportation investments or de-densification in the urban cores of these cities (or annexation, spreading the population out), but either way these are not model cities for transit investments.

I’ll conclude with the below table, which documents mode share in 2009 in the biggest cities of the United States. As the chart shows, automobiles have a majority share in all cities except New York, Boston, Washington, and San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, these are dense cities and the places in the United States with the most complete transit systems.

2009 Mode Share in America’s Biggest Cities
 Total workersTotal AutoTotal Non-AutoDriving AloneCarpoolingTransitBikingWalking
El Paso25587590.15.079.810.
Fort Worth33189492.32.880.611.
Las Vegas24568588.86.377.910.
Los Angeles174841977.615.767.110.511.31.03.4
New York373191728.765.823.55.354.90.610.3
San Antonio60644690.25.578.811.
San Diego62612684.97.476.
San Francisco43707346.445.138.97.431.83.010.3
San Jose44298088.56.076.412.

Louisville, the nation’s 29th-largest city, is not included here because it merged with the surrounding county, significantly changing demographics, in 2003. I have calculated “averages” not in terms of total trips, but city-by-city; thus modal share in Portland is considered just as important as that in New York, despite the latter being much bigger. Note city classification in the first table based on changes during the 2000-2009 period:

  • No Rail: Austin, Columbus, Detroit, El Paso, Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Memphis*, Milwaukee, Nashville*, San Antonio.
  • No new significant rail investments: Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia*.
  • New significant rail investments: Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington.

* The minimal nature of Nashville’s Music City Star means I won’t include it as a “significant” rail investment here. Nor will I include streetcar projects in such cities as Memphis and Philadelphia.

Update: Mode Share Changes 2000-2009 by Point Change
(One Point = 1% of All Commuting Trips)
 Total AutoTotal Non AutoDriving aloneCarpoolingTransitBikingWalking
El Paso-2.240.633.29-5.530.060.060.52
Fort Worth-1.38-0.543.60-4.980.02-0.02-0.54
Las Vegas-0.07-1.004.07-4.14-1.36-0.040.40
Los Angeles-2.921.321.31-
New York-4.132.11-1.39-2.742.090.14-0.12
San Antonio-0.54-0.613.19-3.74-0.46-0.02-0.13
San Diego-1.27-1.132.56-3.83-0.520.11-0.72
San Francisco-4.912.62-1.57-3.340.641.000.98
San Jose-1.90-0.13-0.04-1.87-0.870.270.47
Mode Share in Nation’s Largest Metropolitan Areas – 2009
Metro Area (MSA)Total WorkersDriving AloneCarpoolingTransitBikingWalking
Kansas City100355382.478.881.230.211.48
Las Vegas87444979.4710.333.180.341.78
Los Angeles580665573.6210.806.200.862.63
New York876535650.397.0230.500.406.28
St. Louis132869182.258.952.550.301.64
San Antonio91934879.3511.402.320.182.02
San Diego140641175.809.873.080.622.80
San Francisco208377561.8610.1914.591.544.40

Image at top: San Francisco’s Market Street, by Yonah Freemark

Automobile Bikes Paris Washington DC

Washington’s Capital Bikeshare Launches, Bringing Biggest-Yet System to the U.S.

» Nation’s first modern bike sharing city replaces its fleet. Program could bring dramatic change to one of the nation’s more vibrant inner cities.

When Washington’s SmartBike DC system began operating in 2008, the city was doing something no U.S. municipality had yet attempted: Betting that locals and tourists would excitedly jump onto public bicycles, encouraging the growth of a transportation mode that has too often been left behind by automobile-oriented planners.

Unfortunately, that bet failed to come through: The system was never frequently used, with an average of only about one hundred daily riders. For those of us used to using bike sharing networks, there were good explanations for the system’s difficulties: It was confined in too small of an area; it only offered about 100 bikes total; and it only had ten stations. European standards, grounded in model schemes in Lyon, Barcelona, and Paris, suggested that the most promising systems were those with thousands of bikes spread out over whole sections of the city. Fortunately, Washington didn’t have to use public funds for the ad-sponsored SmartBike project.

But the city’s progressive leadership learned its lesson and has launched Capital Bikeshare, a network that will soon feature 1,100 bikes that will be accessible from 114 stations in the District of Columbus and Arlington County, Virginia, just across the river. The network opened today with 49 operating stations and 400 Bixi bikes imported from Montréal’s successful program. By the end of the year, the system will be the largest in the United States. Moreover, if it receives a federal government TIGER grant this fall, it could feature more than 3,500 vehicles throughout the region by next year.

I argued earlier this summer that bike sharing may be technically difficult to implement in American cities thanks to their monofunctional job centers; in addition, Washington’s network specifically may suffer because of the lack of density planned for the first phase of stations, which could cause difficulties for average riders.

Nonetheless, will Capital Bikeshare “change everything,” as local website Greater Greater Washington proclaimed this morning? It all depends on what kind of expectations we have for this system.

Despite what is often said about investments in bike sharing, the program is unlikely to dramatically reduce rates of automobile use in the nation’s capital. A review of similar systems suggests that only five to ten percent of trips made on public bikes would have otherwise been made by car. Indeed, the vast majority of travel replaces transit or walking trips. This means that from the standpoint of reducing carbon emissions or eliminating traffic, bike sharing doesn’t seem likely to produce many significant benefits directly.

On the other hand, the systems seem to be increasing the mobility of their users dramatically. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that if most of the riders otherwise would walk or take transit, they don’t possess or cannot afford automobiles. For the District of Columbia, this represents quite a large share of the population: 35.5% of households, according to the most recent Census estimates. In some cases, this means bikes provide more direct transportation than existing transit; in others, it means bike sharing can serve as one part of a multi-modal trip, perhaps replacing slower walking. About 70% of travel on existing systems are to and from work, so the bikes are not being used mainly by tourists.

For non-work trips, bike sharing can play a very important role in the life of a city’s residents by providing fast travel without forcing them to keep their vehicles with them at all times. This reduces the fight for parking in popular places experienced by both bikers and drivers, and it eliminates a fear that someone will steal one’s vehicle — in bike sharing not a problem for any individual, since the system is public. (Of course, there are cases of vandalism, but that affects the system, not the user.) In addition, it encourages freedom of movement throughout the city for people who have previously been constrained by sometimes limited bus and rail routes.

What studies thus far have failed to demonstrate is whether the presence of bike sharing system prevents the future purchase of cars by users. It is quite possible that the option to use a bike in most places in the city decreases the demand for automobiles for people who are looking for an easier way to get around. The more extensive a system is, likely the greater this effect.

For the city in general, though, bike sharing’s biggest advantages may come from the fact that it prioritizes biking as an acceptable mode of travel. The installation of bike docks at hundreds of prominent intersections throughout the region promotes the idea that just like cars, which get parking on every block, cycling has an important role in the broader mobility system.

Image above: Capital Bikeshare Station at Dupont Circle, still without bikes (but in front of SmartBike DC station), from Flickr user DC9T (cc)

Bikes London

Can Bike Sharing Work in Cities With Monofunctional Job Centers?

» 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.

Images above: London Cycle Hire bikes being moved about the city, by Flickr user Tom Anderson (cc); and Status of London’s Cycle Hire stations (17 and 18 August 2010), from (cc)

Bikes Montréal Paris Washington DC

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)