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.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Bicycling roundup #2: bike sharing

Revision from original, too long, entry.

1.  Bicycle sharing and rebalancing.  There are a bunch of articles out there about how maybe mathematicians can come up with some super duper algorithm to make systems self-balancing.  See "Bike shares can be perfect!: Solving the commuting algorithm" from Salon and "Bringing Science to Bike Sharing" from Wired (2011).  Right now, systems spend a lot of time and money via "operator intervention" to move the bikes around, to better meet demand.
Non bicyclist using the map at a bicycle sharing station in DC
I think this is a fools errand.

Bike sharing systems are transit, but they aren't mass transit.  They are individualized transit, like a cab ride.

So you have all kinds of trips going to all kinds of places, albeit bounded by the footprint of the stations, but in a fashion that is unbalanced, i.e., many of the trips are commute trips--formerly conducted via transit--from residential areas to employment areas, without return trips.

Transit deals with imbalances this by using large vehicles.  So on the reverse commute trip, the vehicles are lightly used, but because you only need to move one vehicle (bus) or 1 to 4 vehicles (light rail) or 6-8 vehicles (subway cars) with one person (driver/operator) it's not a big deal.  Moving lots of empty bikes in the reverse commute direction is a big deal.

You need a truck, or lots of people. People talk about incentives, but it misses the mark because the issue isn't that you need incentives, what you need are people going in that direction and they aren't.

I don't see how it's solvable (under the constraints of the current footprint and number of bikes and docks).

2.  The bike share rebalancing problem might be solvable by adding bikes and docks, investing in more infrastructure and less in operations to move bikes.  I figure the DC system is spending at least $700,000/year to move bikes around (vehicle amortization + gas + maintenance + insurance + labor).  And you could come up with lower cost alternatives to rebalance bikes (an electric bike engine + a trailering type of apparatus where you could move up to 15 bikes at a time).

A couple years worth of rebalancing at $700,000/year would buy a lot of additional bikes and docks.

Note that part of the problem in DC with rebalancing is that bike sharing presumes what we might call the "main" trip is done by transit, and the follow-on trip by bike.  In DC, the longer trips are replaced by bike share, throwing the model out-of-kilter and making it unbalanced.  Again, it's a math problem, but as long as the footprint and biking inventory are constrained in this particular fashion, it's not solvable by an algorithm or incentives.

3.  The question we don't talk about much: supporting biking via bike sharing versus expecting people to buy their own bikes, but providing high quality bike parking and other facilities.  

 Even though I think bike sharing is cool and it raises the visibility of biking, I don't see how it makes sense economically. 

It costs about $7,000 per bike for the initial infrastructure and set up of the system, and about $2,000 per bike to operate the system annually.

For example, the Toronto system isn't making money to cover operations, despite sponsorships, and needs money for a bailout.  See "Toronto's Bixi boondoggle: Expecting bike-share to pay its own way may have doomed it" from the Toronto Star.

With a membership price of less than $100/year, and most members not racking up additional usage fees, most systems, except those experiencing a high degree of use by tourists, will not generate enough money in fees to cover the costs.

Right: Except for the first photo, the photos are of bike share in New York City.

Note that at a fee of maybe $300/year (cost of a basic bike, but not maintenance), these kinds of systems may be able to break even.  Other systems have various forms of sponsorship and/or include advertising on the kiosks, which generate additional monies--but not tons.

DC, by launching without selling sponsorships or advertising, probably missed its moment, because the value of association declines once this system is launched.

It makes more sense for people to buy bikes, and instead to invest a goodly amount of money in high quality bicycle parking, both publicly and privately.

People may counter and argue that all forms of mobility--walking, biking, motor vehicles, and transit--are subsidized and it's unreasonable to expect bike share to "pay its own way" when the other modes are not.

That is a reasonable argument.  But when you are providing subsidies, you want to get the greatest possible return on the spending (investment).

Considering the cost of buying and fitting the initial infrastructure for bike share, plus the replacement costs of bikes after 5-6 years, and maybe 10 years for the stations, maybe a greater ROI can be obtained from making different investments in biking, specifically facilities like parking, and a dedicated lane and trail network.

4.  Bike share vs. car share as models in collaborative consumption.   Alternatively, there is a lot of discussion about how great collaborative consumption is, that the bike share vehicles are used more intensively, etc., but it is the cost equation for bike share that makes the systems financially problematic.

With car share, you pay an initiation fee usually the first year--lower than for bike share--and if not (because of an incentive) you pay an annual fee each succeeding year, plus hourly fees of $8 to $15 for use of a car. 

With bike share you pay an annual fee that doesn't come anywhere near the cost of covering operating the bike or paying towards the cost of the infrastructure.

I am not suggesting big fees for each bike share use (except as an upcharge for using electric bikes if a system were to offer such bikes as an option), but the point is that with car share the "membership" and payment structure better matches the cost of the system to the price of using it.

Car share is more expensive than bike share, but the issue is the cost compared to owning and operating a car.  The value proposition is very clear, so paying $10-$12/hour for the use of a car isn't that bad as opposed to the basic cost of $300 to $500/month for owning or leasing a car + the cost of insurance and basic maintenance, and then gas, considering that most of the time you "own" a car, it sits there unused.  (Note that collaborative consumption is a form of fractional ownership without the ownership.)

By comparison, the cost of providing a bike sharing system versus the cost of the alternative (owning and operating a bike) is very much unbalanced.

To make it clear: it's expensive to own a car; it's cheap to own a bike.

Given that reality, it's worth reconsidering how we are investing money in supporting biking as transportation.

Maybe the cost of better using through sharing way more expensive resources (bike share) is too much compared to the cost of using cheap resources (individually owned bikes that aren't shared) less efficiently.

5.  There was an op-ed in the New York Times complaining about bike share in New York City.  The op-ed, "Color Me Blue," and responses, "Those Blue New York Bikes, to Love and to Hate."

Part of the complaint is that Citibank gets lots of brand exposure for not much money and does the Citibank blue begin to rebrand the City.  But the other part is complaints about biking.  Good response in Bike Snob ("What the Delia, Ephron?"). 

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At 9:58 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


There are different rebalancing situations in different bike share markets. In DC I think there is a lot of uphill avoidance, electrical bikes would help a lot with that. In NYC everyone wants to come to midtown during the day, electric bikes won't help.

I would love to see a system add an extra 25% capacity that is market priced, and use market pricing for rebalancing. Allow private entities to rebalance for the bikeshare system and pay them. Then the system can make money on the difference. Not only would I pay more per ride for such a system, I would pay more to be a member of such a system.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


Electric bikes are even more expensive and require battery replacement every 18 months, plus you might not be able to rely on solar for recharging.

Which makes the infrastructure requirements even more costly (hard wiring?), but justifies a higher membership for access to e-bikes.

Not sure if your idea could work. I'd be interesting to sketch out the ramifications more.

My worry is that the increase in bikes available at market pricing would go for nought because people wouldn't be willing to pay the significantly higher price (what, $20/day, $1-$2 per trip?) for it.

I did try to develop a different model of higher prices (in the proposal we submitted to Chattanooga), even a bit higher than what DC charges, for tourist/casual use, based on zip code.

The idea is that people in the MPO geography are paying for the system one way or the other and could get a discount compared to out of the area users.

But in the current pricing system of all the Bixi systems, the only way to "make money" is to have a big base of itinerant users, people who are likely to be tourists, and the value of the experience and cost of alternative mobility methods is such that bike share is still a cheaper alternative even at higher prices.

Thanks for writing.

At 10:06 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Paddy, getting back to your first point about systems having different footprints and therefore different considerations wrt rebalancing is important too.

There are a few issues. 1. is as you say, topography. 2. is core vs. outlying stations. 3. is imbalance in the trips.

So because density doesn't justify big stations the farther you move from the core, you can get imbalanced fast there.

In the core, if you have a lot of density of stations/bikes, which DC doesn't but Montreal does, you probably don't have as many problems with rebalancing.

In other words, density, mixed use, many stations, and many bikes militates the need for rebalancing.

But Montreal's core is bigger than ours in terms of population and there are more mixed use commercial-residential zones, where they tend to put the bikes.

Interesting questions sure.

At 10:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why can't CaBi (or any bikeshare) offer some marginal incentive ($1 credit, a week's extension on a year membership) when a user performs a "rebalancing act", ie takes a bike from a full station or drops one off at an empty one?

At 10:43 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

way too much credit to the user for the value to the bike sharing firm, especially vis a vis the cost to membership.

And ideally, they'd move 5 bikes at a time, not 1...

At 11:07 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

anon -- I guess the way to think about this is the severity of the imbalances and the number of bikes to move.

In Paris, the big problems with imbalance include topography, and so they give people a 15 minute credit (a time credit by the way, not a monetary credit) to take bikes to out of the way stations or stations that require an uphill climb.

Otherwise I think they probably enjoy a situation comparable to Montreal in that they have a dense station footprint and 20,000 bikes. Not to mention millions more potential users compared to DC and therefore a greater potential to move bikes around "more randomly" and reverse ways to militate against imbalances.

In DC the farther out stations get emptied and the inner core stations in employment stations get full a couple times during rush and vice versa on the return.

After writing my earlier response I was thinking you could create bike ambassadors who get free membership or other inducements, and have access to a "harness" that allows them to move bikes 5 at a time say, as a train. (Like how the day care places have kids hold hands and walk together.)

So that way you can move a bunch of bikes without costing anything. Other than the harness and a free membership and requirements for them to move bikes at least 3 times/day.

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Paddy Mullen said...

Basically rebalancing is buying extra rides per day. A cost benefit analysis should be done to figure out the cheapest way to buy more rides per day. It could be electric bikes, rebalancing or more bikes and stations.

If a system is looking to have more rides period, then it should look at incentive based systems. One type of ride that should be possible and cheap for the user, is to ride from one congested dock to another. Think Midtown Manhattan in the middle of the day. There are probably a lot of rides from Lex to 8th avenue that could happen and wouldn't really affect overall balance. An incentive system could really maximize those rides.

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

paddy, totally unrelated, I clicked through to your website, saw you were involved in 3rd Ward. Sorry to see that they are shutting down. Any thoughts?

At 1:19 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

I don't want to hijack the thread, but what bikesharing can do is get a lot more granular in terms of understanding the demand.

The model Alta/DDOT/Arlington is using "bike heat map" is pretty crude.

(and as a constant complaint they again aren't being very good of specific locations in terms of ease of use. getting better but not good)

But now we can look at bikeshare data and really see demand and where people are using them. GGW had a link last week on that -- and it wasn't supriising to me that my "station pair" had abotu 83 trips this year and I suspect I was about 50 of those.

At 1:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wondering- is there such a trailer that can move five of the bikes? Each bike weighs 38 lbs. With 6 vans each moving 25 bikes at a time and on the street from 5am until midnight servicing 282 stations, currently, it's a tough job rebalancing DC.
Just wanted to toss that out there.

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Joseph E said...

The benefit of bike sharing vs private bikes is the improved use of bike parking space in busy cities. Each CitiBike in NYC is used about 6 to 8 times a day, and the busiest docks are used in 20 trips a day. A regular bike parking spot in a residential area would probably be used by for only 2 trips (1 round trip) a day, though bike corrals in busy areas might be better used.

Unfortunately, there is no way to capture the value of more highly used bike parking, because almost 100% of bike parking is currently free. As long as most car parking is still free, there will be no way to charge for bike parking, either. But it can still be economically efficient for a city to subsidize bike share, especially if it does it in hidden ways such as providing free space for the stations and allowing advertising and sponsorships. A heavily-used bike share system (such as in Manhattan) will allow people to make faster trips than transit or walking, is cheaper and has lower negative externalities than taxis, and serves a different market that private bikes.

But I agree that stations out in residential areas may not work, as seen in some of the lightly-used station in DC neighborhoods. If bikeshare is only used for unidirectional commuting, it is less efficient that private bikes. It makes sense to limit bikeshare to ares of the city with mixed uses and multidirectional demand, as long as funds for promoting bikes are limited.

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Joseph E. -- besides your great points generally, another advantage of bikeshare in Manhattan is the provision of bike parking generally, not just that it's better used.

Manhattan has some intricacies not present elsewhere in the US. 1. Difficult to retrofit bike parking into existing buildings. 2. Difficult to take up scarce street space for bike parking given competing mobility demands--pedestrian even more than cars. 3. Pain in the ass to take bikes up stairs or even in elevators in tall buildings. 4. Scarce space within dwelling units to store bikes. 5. SUPER HIGH RATE OF THEFT.

Depending on where I would be, live, etc., I'd gladly rely on Citibike rather than an owned bike.

DC though, without the density, even in the core, you don't have the same frequency of stations that you do by comparison in Montreal even. For me, walking more than half a block vs. biking is inefficient. Since we don't have bike share stations every block, I'd much rather have my own bike. I don't have to worry so much about theft either.

At $95/year Citibike is a far better alternative. Especially combined with a monthly transit pass that is half the cost of the equivalent pass in DC.

30 day basic transit pass in NYC, $112
28 day basic pass in DC, $230

At 3:13 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

charlie -- you mean your trips when you lived in ArCo? I've not been in ArCo enough to generalize about bike share there. I've never seen anyone using it when I've been there, but I haven't been there lately...

At 5:04 PM, Anonymous Tal F said...

I'm not sure why you knock the mathematicians developing better balancing algorithms. It seems like a very inefficiently run system at the moment, and improving it can bring that $2000/year cost per bike way down, perhaps bringing many systems into profitable territory.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

anon @1:27 -- I am just riffing on an idea for a kind of flexible harness that you could strap over bikes and put 'em in a line. Might be totally impractical.

The e-bike idea I had was it at the front with three lines max.

At 5:58 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Tal F - the need for rebalancing is a function primarily of two things. 1. your footprint and service profile and whether or not it's adequate to the task. If it isn't, you're going to have "out of stocks".

The issue is having more bikes, stations, and docks. An algorithm and/or incentives won't fix that much.

2. although this is directly related to (1) is how people use the system. If they use it complementary to transit, and don't ride to the transit stop on the origin side, it will mostly self-balance.

If they use it instead of transit, especially for commuting, then you're screwed.

That's the big problem in DC.

I don't think it's possible for an algorithm to better balance where people live vs. where they work.

3. Now the third one is hill locations etc., which can be addressed with incentives, like a 15 minute credit, which is what Paris does.

But maybe I am wrong about the big problems, and an algorithm can help. As you point out even "marginal" improvements in systems operations can cut costs significantly, improving the cost and profit equation.

At 2:46 PM, Anonymous skeptic said...

saying that everyone should just get their own bike and be provided more bike parking ignores psychology and the hassles of owning a big for some people.

--worrying about bike theft, or sometimes experiencing it. including theft of parts.

--MAINTENANCE! cleaning greasy drivetrains, changing flats, etc. or paying to have these things done

--the lack of flexibility in having a bike if the others you're meeting don't. someone may offer you a ride in a car to the next place that's too far to bike, or all want to take the metro during "rush hour" etc

--carrying the bike up your rowhouse stairs, or up to your 2nd/3rd floor walkup apartment. or making an extra trip down to your building's bike room before/after each trip.

--the space it takes up in your small urban dwelling. square feet are expensive in DC! in some spaces it's no problem and there's natural bike parking -- but often not, or it intrudes on living space.

All this isn't that big of a deal for those of us who love biking and would put up with far more hassle than that in order to bike. But it makes a big difference to a lot of people... enough that it just might be worth spending oodles of money to continually rebalance a shared system.

At 5:21 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Still, it's worth having the discussion. Just like I argue that it's unreasonable to subsidize car parking, we should also discuss how bike sharing has become by default the #1 bike policy and this snuffs out money and attention on other bike related infrastructure issues.

And just like a $35 parking permit is too cheap, maybe spending $20 million on bike share vs. dealing with bike access in other ways (including bike storage in neighborhoods apart from buildings, something I've advocated for awhile, etc.) is unreasonable.

Hey, I don't like to carry bikes up stairs either. I am glad I now live in a place with two steps to the house (although I am no longer allowed to put the bike in the living room) or zero steps from the backyard, if I enter from the alley.

This is compared to the last place where I lived which had two levels of stairs to get to the porch. I very much thought of that and wondered what it would be like were I 15 years older.

So I don't discount it. But there are other ways to address it.

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