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All About the Docks

Amidst all the bike share discussion in NYC at the moment, I thought I’d post the ‘director’s cut’ of a (very) short article on the subject of bike sharing I have in the current Outside, written of course before yesterday’s (expected) announcement of the program, to be run by Alta.

Faster than you can say “feasibility study,” bike share programs have been popping up in American cities large and small. And we’re not just talking the usual coastal metropoles: Sure, places like D.C. (100,000 trips in its first seven months) and Montreal (3.3 million trips in 10 months) have popular bike share programs, but so too do San Antonio, Des Moines, and, very soon, Chattanooga, Tennessee. By this time next year, New York and San Francisco should be on board. Proponents, with an intensity approaching Springfield’s mania for the Monorail, see bike shares as not only a valid mode of sustainable transportation but a veritable economic development tool, while the less enamored see them as a trendy, taxpayer-supported vanity project taking up valuable parking space.

But what makes for a successful bike share program? The first, and rather obvious, rule of thumb is that the more bike friendly a place is — the more lanes, the more fellow cyclists — the better bike sharing will be received. But bike sharing in turn makes the city more bike friendly; in the French city of Lyon, for example, more than 90% of people had never biked in the city center prior to bike sharing.
And lest you think bike share seems redundant in an already bike friendly city like Minneapolis, close to 80% of riders on its “Nice Ride” system already own a bike.

But you don’t have to be Portland to have a bike share, argues Alison Cohen, who heads Alta Bike Share, the company that runs the programs in D.C., Boston, and elsewhere. No one ever thinks they’re ready. “We went to Melbourne, Australia, and we were floored by the number of lanes,” she says. “And they were like, ‘how will address the fact that there are no lanes?’ We said, ‘you should see Dallas.’ ” What matters, she says, is political will (and funds). When Boston started looking into bike sharing a few years ago, it had 180 feet of bike lanes — by the time it introduced it, it was up to 38 miles. New York, she notes, delayed its request-for-proposals for a year as it firmed up its bike infrastructure.

This points to another no-brainer: Bikes need to be where people want to go, whether it’s transit hubs or tourist hotspots (a common theme in failed “first generation” bike share programs, often halfheartedly promoted by advertising companies, is that they started too small to be seen as useful).

Then there’s the nitty-gritty details, like capacity. “It’s all about the docks,” says Cohen, who says a two-to-one bike-to-dock ratio is ideal. But in crowded cities, finding space downtown to accommodate the morning flow is a challenge (in D.C, users complained when a Groupon promotion brought thousands of new users online). A related issue is distribution — how do you spread bikes throughout the system if users aren’t doing it themselves? Bike-carrying trucks is the brute force solution. But herein lies another problem. “The time when you need the trucks to be most mobile, when the trucks are getting filled up, is rush hour,” Cohen says.

Lastly, as with any consumer transaction, user experience is key, from payment to pricing to pedals. Anything that stands between the rider and a potential ride will dampen the program. Where D.C.’s bikes average five rides a day, notes Cohen, in Melbourne, they get just one. The primary reason? A mandatory helmet law. For various reasons (including hygiene), no bike share system in the world provides a helmet. Nor should they, some would argue. But Cohen feels the market may provide a solution — and indeed, a London-based designer, Anirudha Rao, has already crafted the prototype Kranium, an inexpensive, custom-made cardboard helmet which he envisions could be sold in vending machines (replete with 3-d scanners and printers) at bike share stations.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 15th, 2011 at 7:56 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 Responses to “All About the Docks”

  1. Brian Ogilvie Says:

    Here in Paris (my temporary home), I can see the effect of commuting patterns on the Vélib’ stations. Where I live, near the place de la Nation, the station at the end of my street is usually full, or nearly so, in the morning. By noontime, there are only a couple bikes left, often those that are in bad condition or unrideable. By late afternoon they’re trickling back in, and one evening around 10:30 p.m. they were full and I had to go to two other stations to find an empty place.

    The firm that runs the system, JC Decaux, uses trucks to cart bikes around. They’ve also instituted a system that gives users 15 free minutes (which can be banked for future rides) if they take a bike from a station that is under 60 m in elevation and return it at one that is above 60 m, since the general trend of bikes is downward. I’ve accumulated a free half hour so far. The catch is that if you leave a bike at one of those stations and come back later, you might find yourself having to walk a ways downhill to find another bike. The incentive system could be generalized if they wanted, e.g. extra minutes for leaving a bike at a station that has only a few bikes at it.

    I will say that the density of stations in Paris is high, which makes the system a lot better than one where stations are spaced further apart. Here they’re supposed to be no more than 300 m (about 2/10 mile) apart, so you’re never more than a few minutes’ walk from one.

  2. djangosChef Says:

    Some would argue that the mandatory helmet law is itself the damper.

  3. fred_dot_u Says:

    “The first, and rather obvious, rule of thumb is that the more bike friendly a place is — the more lanes, the more fellow cyclists — the better bike sharing will be received.”

    Which only fosters the illusion that bike lanes make for safer riding.

  4. Hendrik Says:

    @fred_dot_u The illusion of safety can be said for any traffic safety measure. Having a bike line at least will give a clear signal to all road users that cars are no longer the only users of the road anymore.

    I was happy to see all the extra and new bikelanes in Paris when using the Vélib system. Even though you had to share it a lot of times with buses and taxi’s, it did give me a solid place in the chaotic Parisian traffic. (Traffic Circle’s excluded, because that’s no-mans land)

  5. Gerry Gaffney Says:

    I’ve done some informal user research at a few of the docks in the Melbourne scheme, and believe that the mandatory helmet law does indeed explain the poor uptake.

    Attempts to have low-cost helmets available to purchase “nearby” are of limited effectiveness.

    There does appear to be a gradual increase in usage, but it’s still very low in comparison to European cities.

  6. Marc Says:

    I would have to think that topography and climate will always play a part. Pittsburgh is an awesome city, but I’m not sure bike sharing would take off there for the simple reason that it’s such an incredibly hilly city. (Though even in the hilliest of cities there are still some trips that will be minimal elevation change.)

    Public transit also plays a role. I think that people are a lot more likely to use bikesharing if they know they have the option of taking transit for the return trip, particularly if there’s an iffy weather forecast, or if they’re using bikesharing to get to the pub but want the option of not having to BUI home after.

    I do agree that density of bike sharing stations matters. In other words, go big or go home. If a city tries to lowball the initial install with just a few stations widely dispersed, not many people will use the system, and public opinion will swing against the whole concept.

  7. gpsman Says:

    Here, you leave a unlocked bike on the street and in 10 minutes it will be on its way to the scrapyard.

  8. Richard Says:

    Seriously, disposal cardboard helmets? This probably negates much of environmental benefits of using the bikes. Might as well just drive. Any the cost. It would be better just to invest in more bike lanes. It is much better to reduce collisions than trying to make collision a bit safer.

  9. Danilo Bessa Says:

    I am afraid that in some cities here In Brazil, a lot of bikes would be stolen. What do you think?

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

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