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From Periphery to Center: Does Bike Redistribution Work?
D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare program. Photo via Park View, D.C.

How can bikesharing programs, like D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare, ensure that stations have an even distribution of bicycles? Photo via Park View, D.C.

The Transport Politic‘s Yonah Freemark has been writing recently about the efficiency of bikesharing models that major cities around the world have been adopting. He focuses on the issue of redistribution.

Bikesharing systems have opened in cities, such as Denver, Co.; Minneappolis, Minn.; London, England; Montreal, Canada, Melbourne, Australia, Shanghai, and Washington, D.C.   Boston, Mass.New York City, and Budapest, Hungary are also planning, seeking funding or studying the potential for bikeshare systems. (For a more comprehensive list go to Wikipedia or check out this blog based in D.C.)  As bikeshare systems gain in popularity, so do logistical concerns. Bike availability at stations and open spots for depositing bikes has become an issue for a number of cities. The New York Times documented the occurrence in Barcelona’s bike program, called Bicing, in 2008.

Most bike programs account – at least in part – for the discrepancies in bike movement by  manually recirculating bikes.

Too Many or Too Few in London

Still, cities with bikeshare schemes are experiencing too many or too few bikes in certain areas. Freemark says London’s system, Barclays Cycle Hire, is not working in specific locales due to the directional flow of commuters. Job centers and residential areas are isolated from one another. According to Freemark, “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.”  Stations like King’s Cross and Waterloo Stations experience peak usage when dozens of extra bicycles are left undocked by users.  To anticipate high usage the system is also leaving dozens of extra bikes available for users.  This video from the BBC shows workers of the bike system simply presiding over “dumped bikes” at the King’s Cross station.

Looking at the  real-time map system of Barclays Cycle Hire in London, which we recently wrote about, you can see some stations have no bikes and others are totally full. (Again look in “grid view” to most easily see bike availability.) For another view, Freemark highlights a visualization of bike availability by station in Oliver O’Brien’s spatial analysis blog, Suprageography.

Another Issue: Bike Station Density

For Washington, D.C., the bikesharing system Capital Bikeshare has been in place for only a few weeks. The bikes span the city and Arlington County – 114 stations and more than 1,000 bikes. There are plans to expand it.  Below is an image from Transport Politic that shows, in the top row, the densest areas of bike station placement in one square-mile areas of Washington D.C., Montreal and Paris.  In the second row are the least dense areas for bike usage in the three cities, which include the neighborhoods of Anacostia in Southeast D.C., southeast of Parc Maisonneuve in Montréal, and Montreuil, east of Paris.

Photo by The Transport Politic

Photo by The Transport Politic

The Transport Politic sums up his findings:

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.

Low density for bike stations  is a problem for a number of reasons, according to Freemark:

  • short neighborhood commutes become more difficult which reduces chances to attract occasional riders
  • insufficient density can increases the likelihood that stations run out of bicycles run or out of dock spaces
  • Availability in Real-Time

    D.C. has opted to spread out its stations, unlike Paris where almost every station is within 200 meters.

    A check of bikeshare programs in D.C. using its bikeshare availability app, on a sunny but chilly afternoon, revealed that stations appear to be either mostly full (seven to 10 bikes) or mostly empty (two or less.) A few bike share stations in the neighborhoods of Columbia Heights and U Street had very low bike availability, as did two stations near the Crystal City Metro stop in Arlington, Va., and a station in Anacostia (an area that Freemark highlights in his map above.) One station on Independence Avenue and 12th Street in downtown D.C., near the USDA office, was totally empty for a number of hours according to the application. Still no stations were totally full, i.e. unaccepting of bikes.

    Downtown D.C. bike availability on October 5, 2010. As you can see a few stations are empty or close to being empty. Photo via Rhys Thom's i phone.

    Downtown D.C. bike availability on October 5, 2010. A few stations are empty or close to being empty. Image via iPhone screenshot.

    Chris Holben, bikesharing project manager for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), said that the contracted company by DDOT and Arlington County, Alta Bicycle Share, responsible for installation, maintenance and redistribution of bikes, “found out right away the system could not run itself.”

    The company’s contract states explicitly that a station cannot be full or empty for more than three hours at a time between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and midnight. Obviously, the company’s goal is to try to beat that. They have laptops in their trucks that map the bike distribution in real-time.

    Complex Commuting Patterns

    Even with mobile apps and online data like those in London, a full or empty station leaves a rider without a nearby option when parking or picking up a bike, which is especially inconvenient in D.C. where bike spacing is more spread out.  Plus, lots of people don’t have the convenience of checking station availability on their smart phones.

    Freemark’s analysis of Montreal and Paris suggests “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.”

    But we also have to remember D.C. is far smaller than Paris and Montreal. D.C.’s daytime population pulses to nearly a million — 172% of its nighttime population. By c0ntrast the central city of Paris has about 2 million inhabitants within city limits, and the metropolitan area has about 11 million. In Montreal proper, the population is close to two million and the metropolitan area nears four million.

    Freemark concludes that the cities most amenable to bike sharing are those in which urban districts are not separated by usage, but rather those that support integrated, mixed urban use.

    But D.C. officials are more optimistic than Freemark. DDOT’s Holben says he thinks the majority of  the District’s users will employ the bikes for commuting, which means downtown stations will be full and the suburbs empty. Despite the one-way strain, he says, “We will have to redistribute – there’s going to be movement we don’t necessarily know about.”

    Plus, all of these bike sharing schemes are relatively new, and it is safe to assume the early adopters are commuters. As the bike sharing programs gain in popularity, tourists, students and other casual users may more evenly redistribute the bikes. In Paris the distribution problem for Velib was largely centered around hills. Communities and neighborhoods at the tops of hills were empty during the first year of the program, but Velib added a simple behavioral fix: “Return your bike to one of 100 stations perched over 60 meters above the rest of the city, and 15 minutes of free riding is added to your account.” So far it’s been successful.

    It also seems more data on commuting patterns, such as the rise of reverse commuting, or usage in specific neighborhoods would benefit bikesharing programs and alternative transport options, in general. Ultimately these systems are designed to benefit the user. Holben says, “we’ve been lenient thus far. We don’t want you to abandon the bike.” Or be without one. So he says, “you can call us.”

    Holben cited one commuter who had a meeting to attend but no space for her bike, so Capital Bikeshare stored her rented bike and she called when she was done with her meeting. Obviously it’s not the norm, but hopefully these innovative systems will work out their kinks.

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