Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Some things bike sharing just can't do

A Cabi bicycle sharing bike, North Capitol and Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC
A bicyclist using Capital Bikeshare, at Massachusetts Avenue and North Capitol Street NW, Washington, DC.

One of the frustrating things in advocating for "mass" transit is how in most discussions some people will pipe up with why PRT--personal rapid transit (this happens with monorails too) are better than more traditional light rail, heavy rail, or streetcars.

With regard to PRT (website on the Morgantown system), while it is true that it costs less to construct because it is a smaller type system, by definition it isn't mass transit--vehicles typically hold 6 to 20 passengers total.

Compare that to "mass" transit such as heavy rail where each car holds between 100 and 200 passengers, and run in sets of 4 to 12 cars.

There's no comparison in terms of throughput--the number of people that can move through the system in short periods of time.

One train on the red line subway in DC moves more than 1,000 people at one time in 6 to 8 cars, while you need 10 to 20 buses to move the same number of people, etc.

And you can move from 20,000 to 60,000 people per hour on one track, depending on how a subway/heavy rail system is configured (in DC the capacity is about 30,000 people per hour on shared lines, and not quite 40,000 people per hour on the red line, which doesn't share tracks with other lines).

Bicycle sharing is called transportation and it is but compared to traditional transit it is more like how PRT is to mass transit. It's one person transportation. More like taxicabs. So you can't rely on it to move large numbers of people along specific routes in a regimented fashion.

So bicycle sharing isn't a solution for serving large numbers of people in groups when WMATA is doing maintenance and certain stations are closed, and they run buses between stations.

One bus has the capacity of 60 to 80 bikes (and actually uses less space on the road). And it has a driver, so it's a lot easier to turn around and "reuse". In the parlance of bike sharing, which calls moving bikes around "rebalancing", keeping the bus moving--because it has a driver--picking up and letting off passengers, is much easier.

(Similarly, while everyone lauds the bike sharing system in DC for emergency evacuation purposes, such as when DC experienced an earthquake last summer, it's only good for one trip out, because there aren't people at the other end who will immediately be riding back in the other direction. See the blog entry, "Cabi, 2 hours after an earthquake," from Washcycle for an illustration of the problem.)

(The cost of 90 bikes and the relevant equipment in a bike sharing system is roughly equal to the cost of one bus.)

Similarly, it's not a big jobs program. It doesn't make sense to pay homeless people to ride bikes one at a time to stations that need bikes, from stations that have too many, because a truck/trailer moves far more bikes at once than an individual riding one bike to a distant station, then walking back a couple miles to do it again can ever do. (Apparently the DC bicycle sharing system typically rebalances 300 to 400 bikes/day.)

I'm not saying that bike sharing is a bad thing. It's not. It's a great thing, and one more step forward to re-patterning transportation programs and attitudes about biking as transportation specifically. But it does some things well and other things it's not well-situated to accomplish and we should be direct about it (and focus our mental energy on more important stuff).

(Note that I actually take a social marketing, community organizing, public health approach to bicycling.)

I ruffled some feathers at the conference when I said that "our" desire to define every bike sharing project as successful doesn't help us, because if we aren't doing critical analysis we aren't learning, we're not generating best practice, etc.

One of the problems of course is that the implementation of bike sharing is moving so fast that it's hard to capture the best practice and to utilize it elsewhere. That was the purpose of the conference, to work to capture the best practice, reflect on it some, and harvest it for the next wave of cities working to implement bike sharing.

So I said what I said about the failure to be critical and someone working on a national research project on bike sharing countered with what about bike sharing in terms of the health benefits of biking, the increase in visibility of biking as a transportation mode, etc.?

I replied that those are great benefits, but if you are funding bike sharing through "Congestion Management and Air Quality" funding then you have to be focused on usage specifically--membership and use numbers, the number of trips, and the increases in these numbers. The other benefits don't necessarily justify spending many millions of dollars on bike sharing from that program--if you want to promote the health benefits, get money from health-related sources, etc.

Bike-based transit = bike sharing.
But all bike sharing programs as constituted ≠ bike transit.

Maybe we need to think back to the invention of the word "Bixi" which is trademarked by the Public Bicycle Sharing Company and is used to describe their system and equipment (used in such cities as Montreal, London, Washington, DC, and Boston).

Bixi is a contraction of two words bike/bicycle and taxi.

A taxi is a type of public transportation, but it isn't mass transit.

Two examples that spurred my outburst were (1) the Spartanburg, SC "bike sharing" program with 2 stations and about 1 trip per day per bike and how they described it as a success because the funders--health related groups--are happy with the achievement. That's fine, but it isn't transit. Maybe it's spurring more people to ride for transportation, maybe not. I want more questions asked and answered...

(2) And another major system had abysmal growth in membership from year one to year two. I don't see how it can be called a success at all. In fact, I think it's chilling. We need to know why that system hasn't experienced anywhere near the kind of growth that Montreal did from year one to year two. Although technically they had the same level of growth, 100% from year one to year two, it's just that Montreal started from a base of 10 times more members.

I think in part it has to do with how transit-engaged communities are. The researchers are focused on the link between the availability of bike infrastructure and bike sharing, but I think what's more important is the community's general engagement in transit and/or what we call "sustainable transportation."

In communities where people with mobility choices are already walking and using transit, and the spatial conditions are favorable to biking, bike sharing can work.

(Cities in North America where people with choices use transit because it is more efficient include Boston, Chicago, Greater New York, arguably Portland, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, BC, and Washington, DC. Cities like Davis, California, Minneapolis, and Portland are more successful nationally with biking mode split compared to other cities than they are with transit mode split, compared to cities like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, or Washington.)

In communities where the prevailing attitude is that transit is mostly a social service of last resort for people who can't afford a car, I think that bike sharing can still work, but it won't work without tons of ongoing promotion and it will take a comparatively longer time to generate high rates of use.

I think that the European experience with bicycle sharing confirms this as well--it works in cities where transit use is high, where walking and biking is prevalent, etc. Although certainly it is helped by the fact that in Europe owning a car is expensive, parking a car is expensive, gasoline is expensive, and by comparison biking is cheap, and bike sharing generally is priced to be inexpensive. (The cost of an annual membership for the Paris' Velib system is about 1/2 to 2/3 cheaper than comparable rates in large US cities. The cost for a day user is about 1/3 the cost in Paris compared to the rate in large US cities.)

But maybe too it has to do with mixing of residential and commercial areas, that single use areas--all commercial or all residential--aren't conducive, for a variety of reasons, to high membership rates?

Anyway, if we aren't trying to figure out what's working, what isn't, and why, we aren't going to improve our practice and we are going to waste a lot of time in the interim.

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